NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 26, 2005

International law misunderstands the way the world works and provides an unstable legal bedrock for many international institutions, says Weekly Standard contributor Thomas Meaney.

The dominant academic theory of international law holds that states comply with the law because it is legally binding and morally right; even if it is not in their interest, states will still operate under the law out of respect for its universal legitimacy, says Meaney. However, states only comply with international law when it best serves their interests. When the balance tips in favor of self-interest, a state will make an exception in a heartbeat.

So, why do countries use international law if it holds so little weight? Because international talk is cheap, says Meaney:

  • In the case of human right treaties, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states like Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan were happy to ratify it because appeasing the international community could only bring them economic benefits, especially since they knew the treaty would not be enforced.
  • Historically, states have cloaked their intentions in the rhetoric of international law to avoid immediate reprisals for their actions.
  • Paying tribute to international law is one of the best ways a government can conceal self-interest and rationalize its policies in moral terms.

The real problem is that the philosophical foundations of international law are faulty. Moral obligation has no place in international law, since the ultimate purpose of a state is to secure rights for its own citizens, says Meaney.

Moreover, international law can only be altered and improved by violations; it can only be made more effective if the limitations of international law are recognized, says Meaney.

Source: Thomas Meaney, "Rules For Nations," Weekly Standard, September 5 - September 12, 2005; based upon Jack L. Goldsmith and Eric A. Posner, "The Limits of International Law," Oxford University Press, January 2005.

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