Karen Alter has written an important and useful book surveying the ‘new terrain’ of international law. The book straddles international law and international relations/political science, and thus readers on both sides of the fence may find it a challenging read—as Karen herself acknowledges in the Preface. But this is not the only reason why readers may find the book challenging: its stated intention is to challenge stereotypes about international courts, and to demonstrate through the emergence of ‘new-style’ courts that we are moving from a contractual understanding of international law to a rule of law mentality. This is because ‘new-style’ courts do not engage solely in (bilateral) dispute settlement but rather also undertake public law functions such as enforcement, administrative review and constitutional review. I fully subscribe to Nico Krisch’s comments on how these functions interact (and have always interacted).
In this short comment I want to focus on the book’s central claim, not so much to summarily disagree with it—in fact to some extent I agree with the claim—but rather to highlight why I think it might be glossing over some important issues from the perspective of international law. Such glossing over may weaken the central claim, which is made with great force. As a (self-proclaimed) positivist international lawyer I found some of the arguments on which the central claim is based hard to digest.
The first point that I want to raise is about the ‘contractual’ paradigm of international law (and dispute settlement) and the move to a ‘rule of law’ paradigm (and public law functions). I should say at the outset that I find terms like ‘rule of law’ inherently suspicious, precisely because they operate as shibboleths for something good without having any agreed content—except perhaps in the broadest possible sense. More on this below. But there is also a problem with the contractual paradigm and ‘new-style’ international courts as an indicator of moving away from it. Well, we are and we aren’t moving away from it, for one, and it is not international courts that predominantly signify whatever move there is, in my view.
Whether we are moving away from a contractual conceptualisation of international law, and whether this is a new development signified by the rise of ‘new-style’ courts depends, first, on what we understand as such a contractual paradigm. Karen seems to be focusing a lot on treaty obligations (which in the first instance are contractual in the broadest sense) and indeed on reciprocal obligations, even arguing at some point that the violation of a contractual obligation ‘dissolves’ the counterparty’s obligation—which it does not, and in any event not automatically. But we have been moving away from this narrowly-conceived contractual paradigm since the late 40s; suffice it to mention here the Reservations to the Genocide Convention Advisory Opinion and the Barcelona Traction Judgment, to take just examples from the oldest-style permanent court you could imagine – the ICJ. The point is that this has not really translated in any significant change in locus standi for actors other than (directly injured) States except in the example of the very particular courts that Karen deals with in her book. Read the rest of this entry…