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Consent and Customary International Law

Published on August 4, 2014        Author: 

I am pleased to see Professor Guzman and Jerome Hsiang being among those authors who admit that one cannot construct a plausible and coherent CIL theory without a thorough conceptual clarification. In their short article in EJIL Vol. 25:2 (2014), they are focusing on consent and CIL, particularly on the tension between the principle of consent prevailing in international law and non-consensual law-making in the field of CIL. They do not perform an analysis on the concept “consent”, but try to answer the question of why rationally self-interested states should accept the existence of non-consensual customary rules in international relations. I am willing to accept some of their claims or conclusions, as follows. (i) There exist some weak, limited forms of non-consensual rule-making in contemporary international law. (ii) Customary rules are the output of such rule-making. (iii) A non-consensual customary rule, by its content and nature, usually provides great benefits to most of the states or the whole international order and relatively small costs to one or some states.

Of course, all this is the rejection of the so-called consent theories of CIL. It is no surprise. In his excellent, seminal article of 2005 (Saving Customary International Law), Guzman has outlined the basis of a modern, non-objectivist, belief-based CIL theory within the framework of his rational choice doctrine. A belief-based CIL theory is not compatible with consent theories. I also have doubts about that a consent theory could adequately explain how CIL really works. However, three caveats are in order here.

First, consent theories of CIL put up a stout resistance. They are supported by the requirement of “acceptance” in the text of Article 38(1)(b) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, although they encounter difficulties with adjusting acceptance to opinio juris. For example, Olufemi Elias and Chin Lim, who worked out a modern, refined and flexible version of CIL consent theories (The Paradox of Consensualism in International Law), simply conflate the two concepts, which is problematic from the theoretical angle. Read the rest of this entry…