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Response to Ratner: “An international lawyer has got to dream…it comes with the territory”

Published on June 4, 2015        Author: 

The premise of Steven Ratner’s book is that political philosophers have paid scant attention, in their reflections on justice, to international law. Ratner seeks to correct this, by offering an account of international law in terms of philosophical conceptions of justice. The premise would only be true if one understood political philosophy as beginning with John Rawls. In fact, as the great jurist Hersch Lauterpacht wrote in his seminal 1927 essay “Spinoza and International Law”, “the relation between political theory & international law is of a more pervading character than is commonly assumed.” From Thucydides (see his intricate account of claims of treaty violation in relation to the start of the Peloponnesian Wars), through de Vittoria, Gentili, Grotius, Pufendorf, Montesquieu, Rousseau (a great innovator in humanitarian law), Kant, through the 20th century debates about global order between Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve, political thinkers – sometimes also jurists –have engaged with conceptions of legal order beyond the state.

What Ratner understands as “political philosophy” is what is conventionally accepted as such by the mainstream in philosophy departments in American universities. While political philosophers in the past have questioned the “state”, its meaning, its place in human order, Ratner simply accepts the “state,” and that international law is and will remain the law of a state system. Even the contemporary philosophers of global justice to whom he refers have imagined federative or democratic conceptions of world order, or have attempted to theorise forms of transnational political organization, above all the European Union. Mainstream international legal professionals may well be comforted by Ratner’s book in being confirmed that the status quo that they represent and reproduced can be defended as “thin” justice, or perhaps more properly, rough justice. Others will question whether there is any real philosophical grounding to Ratner’s efforts to control or cabin their dreams of a better world or their critiques of the actual one.

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A Comment on Ratner on International Justice

Published on June 4, 2015        Author: 

What if we took the justice of international law seriously? This is the gamble that Ratner makes in his new and exciting book, which proposes a theory not of international justice per se nor of the nature of international law, but of the nature of the justice that is in international law. I should say from the outset that I think this is a worthwhile pursuit and that Ratner’s book can serve as a useful bridge between international lawyers and global justice theorists. Whilst the former traditionally profess to not be particularly interested in questions of justice, they have always flirted with the notion that international law is somehow just; and whilst justice theorists have long proceeded happily to devise theories that are oblivious to international law as it is, one cannot say that the result has always been felicitous. At any rate, this is a conversation worth having and it is interesting to have that particular book written by an international lawyer who is open to normative theory rather than the other way round, at least for the purposes of engaging the international legal discipline.

Ratner is nothing if not methodical, moving with great circumspection alongside what is in the end quite a narrow path. The book is rigorous, honest and searching, even as its author ultimately does not shun from taking positions. Its breadth of knowledge and intuition is stupendous, and it is constantly challenging analytically. One of the most deserving aspects of the book is the way in which the theory is deployed systematically to test the ethical character of existing norms. In the end, some rules are judged more ethical than is commonly assumed, and others insufficiently so. Ratner does not shy from the conclusions to which his theory leads him, and is forthcoming about what the theory cannot be expected to achieve.

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International Law’s Empirically Generated Justice: Natural Law Theory Reinvented

Published on June 2, 2015        Author: 

The weight of any argument or theory that is empirically grounded is unparalleled. In contemporary legal discourses, no argument or theory fares better than an empirical one, that is when its foundations can be validated by facts, practices, and existing institutional arrangements – which are, on that occasion, considered self-sustaining. This is what is called empiricism. International lawyers have long understood the argumentative convenience of empiricism, which has accordingly been thriving in contemporary international legal thought. Only international lawyers amenable to the natural law tradition have continued to prefer to ground legal argumentation in normative and theoretical postulates and have played down the foundational role of facts, practices, and existing institutional arrangements which, in their view, cannot be self-sustaining. It is accordingly no surprise that the resilient debates between mainstream empiricists and moralists have been revolving around the validating role of these facts, practices and institutional arrangements.

This dichotomous image of the structure of international legal argumentation is challenged by The Thin Justice of International Law (hereafter TJIL) written by Professor Steven Ratner. Indeed, in this book, he offers us an elegant refinement of the natural law tradition in international law by seeking to bridge the abovementioned divide between empiricists and moralists in international legal thought. It will however be argued in the following paragraphs that the most innovative aspect of TJIL does not lie with the stylish blend of empiricism and morality it relies on but rather with the epistemic union between international lawyers and moral philosophers which it calls for.

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Thin is beautiful – or are international lawyers anorectic?

Published on June 2, 2015        Author: 

Thin and thick and the two-pillar test

Steven Ratner’s book measures international core norms against a standard of “thin justice”. That justice is thin, because it is less demanding than the standard we would use to judge domestic law and domestic institutions, “it is a justice that reflects the thinness of the community in which it operates” (p. 90, see also p. 416). The distinction between domestic thickness and international thinness is inspired by and parallels Michael Walzer’s thick and thin morality. Ratner does not espouse a radical cosmopolitanism which claims that the standards of justice need to be independent from state boundaries, and which would not allow for distinctions based on the nationality of involved persons or on the territoriality of situations.

In the book, Ratner undertakes three operations: First, he identifies and fleshes out the thin-justice-standard. Importantly, “thin” does not mean “procedural” only, but has some substance. The standard consists of two principles or “pillars”, as Ratner calls them. The first pillar is the advancement of international and intra-state peace, the second pillar is the respect for basic human rights. In addition to a norm’s capacity to further peace and/or human rights, Ratner (at some places) employs two additional criteria: procedural fairness, as an expression of internal morality vis-à-vis participants and as an outgrowth of the rule of law (p. 409), and/or the prospects of such a norm for compliance.

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Introducing The Thin Justice of International Law

Published on June 1, 2015        Author: 

I begin with thanks to the editors of the two blogs that have organized this mini-symposium and to the five authors, from ethics and international law, who have agreed to comment on my book. I hope this experiment in interdisciplinary blogging will be the start of something bigger.

The project that eventually became The Thin Justice of International Law began out of a sense of frustration that two of the core disciplines central to developing ideas and norms of global justice – philosophical ethics and international law – were not engaging with each other. Political and moral philosophy can give us the carefully worked out ideas for improving the existing world order. Yet much of it lacks institutional awareness. In particular, I saw a dominant trend among philosophers to dismiss existing rules of international law as lacking in moral stature, as if their origin in power politics or compromise meant they could not have any independent moral grounding; or simply to ignore legal rules and institutions in their theorizing about global justice.

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Discussion of Steven Ratner’s The Thin Justice of International Law

Published on June 1, 2015        Author: 

The Thin Justice of International Law A Moral Reckoning of the Law of NationsThis week we will be discussing Steven Ratner’s recent book with OUP, The Thin Justice of International Law: A Moral Reckoning of the Law of Nations. We will be running this discussion in tandem with the blog of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of the Carnegie Council, who will be having their own discussants – be sure to visit!

Steve is a leading international law academic; he is currently the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. His book will be discussed over the course of the week by Anne Peters, Rob Howse, Jean d’Aspremont and Frédéric Mégret, who will be joined over at EIA by Kristen Hessler and David Lefkowitz. Steve will start off the discussion with an introduction, and wrap it up with a response to all of the discussants. We are grateful to all of them for their participation.

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Announcements: Conference on Hybrid Warfare and Minorities (Lancaster); Conference on Fundamental Rights in the EU (Trier); EJIL:Live! Extra on IHL and IHRL

Published on May 30, 2015        Author: 

1.  Conference on Hybrid Warfare and Minorities, University of Lancaster, 26 June 2015. This conference looks at recent trends in unconventional warfare involving cyber-attacks, the media and the use of irregular forces, and their relationship with human and minority rights. Three panels will address 1. Cyberwarfare, Freedom of Expression and Minorities; 2. Hybrid Warfare and Attribution; 3. Hybrid Warfare and the Concept of “Attack”. Keynote speakers are Dr Thomas D. Grant (University of Cambridge) and Professor Bill Bowring (Birkbeck, University of London). Further details can be found here.

2.  ERA Conference: Protecting Fundamental Rights in the European Union. Tools, challenges and way forward. Trier, 18-19 June 2015. The aim of this conference is to analyse recent developments in the field of fundamental rights protection in the European Union. It will address the challenges legal practitioners face when dealing with fundamental rights issues, shed light on the current state of the EU system of fundamental rights protection and provide tools regarding its effective implementation. See more information here.

3.  In case you missed it, the latest EJIL: Live Extra! features Joseph Weiler and Dapo Akande of the University of Oxford discussing the relationship between international humanitarian law and international human rights law.  The EJIL: Live Extras series comprises short video conversations with leading international law scholars.

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Mobile Technology in the Interest of Law and the Protection of Civilians

Published on May 29, 2015        Author: 

Genevmobile app1a Call, a Geneva-based NGO, launches Fighter not Killer, a mobile quiz to raise awareness of the law of armed conflict among armed groups.

Making international humanitarian law more accessible

Today’s conflicts are mostly qualified under international humanitarian law (IHL) as being of a non-international character, i.e. a State against one or several armed non-State actors (ANSAs) or even a conflict among different ANSAs. It is thus critical to secure these actors’ compliance with international norms. The reasons for lack of compliance are diverse: strategic arguments (asymmetric warfare), the complexity of the different treaties and the lack of knowledge of applicable norms, and sometimes defiance toward international norms. These issues make the respect and implementation of IHL by ANSAs challenging, often leading to dramatic consequences for civilian populations.

While the level of knowledge of IHL varies among the different ANSAs, they all share common features. Their members are not necessarily professional combatants and have not been systematically trained on IHL. An uneven level of education and difficulties in accessing areas where ANSAs are operating impede dissemination of and training on IHL norms.

Since 2000, Geneva Call has been engaging in dialogue with more than 100 ANSAs to encourage them to respect IHL and enhance the protection of the civilian populations during armed conflict. In its daily work, the organization enters into dialogue with armed groups and invites them to sign Deeds of Commitment, through which ANSAs publicly commit to respect specific international humanitarian norms. It also supports the dissemination of IHL to commanders, combatants, political leaders of armed groups, and local communities.

Fighter Not Killer: A mobile quiz on IHL

To support this engagement with ANSAs, Geneva Call has developed a set of innovative tools to make IHL accessible to ANSA members. This set includes a mobile phone application, called ‘Fighter not Killer’. Read the rest of this entry…

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What Lies Beneath the ‘G’ Word? Genocide-Labelling and Fact-Finding at the UN

Published on May 28, 2015        Author: 

In late 2013, the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide warned that “there is a risk of genocide” in the Central African Republic (CAR). A year later, with thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, a UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) determined that genocide had not occurred because “the threshold requirement to prove the existence of the necessary element of genocidal intent ha[d] not been established…” (Executive Summary). Their answer seems clear, and yet this post will argue the Commission may have reached the wrong conclusion. In doing so, it will also draw attention to discrepancies between the UN’s classifications of genocide and raise questions about the powers of fact-finding bodies more generally.

It should be noted at the outset that the CoI left little doubt that serious crimes had been committed in CAR. Established at the request of the Security Council, the Commission had a mandate to investigate violations dating back to January 2013 when Séléka fighters began their march on CAR’s capital, Bangui. Though some of the worst violence took place on its watch, the Commission could not “establish with any degree of accuracy the number of people who were killed in the conflict.” Conceding that the available estimates “fail to capture the full magnitude of the killings that occurred”, it nevertheless concluded that “all the parties were involved in serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross abuses of human rights including rape and other gender based sexual offences and violations.”

What about genocide?

The CoI’s analysis of this key question begins with the applicable law, where it notes that genocide requires the actus reus (‘specific acts committed against specific groups’), the mens rea of specific (genocidal) intent, and – in line with the Rome Statute’s Elements of Crimes – ‘a manifest pattern of similar conduct directed against the targeted group’ (para. 450). Against this backdrop, the report establishes that the genocide label would prima facie apply only to acts committed by the Christian anti-balaka against CAR’s Muslims. Crucially, genocide would not be applicable to attacks committed by Muslims against Christians. The Commission then assesses the case law of several tribunals in order to distinguish ethnic cleansing from genocide.

This is where the legal analysis takes a perplexing turn. Before it has a chance to examine the legal elements of genocide, the CoI says (para. 452):

…the information available to it reveals repeated instances of crimes against humanity amounting to the fact pattern of ethnic cleansing committed by the anti-balaka in the areas in which Muslims had been living. In terms of criminal responsibility, however, the Commission is of the view that these acts of ethnic cleansing would best be prosecuted with (sic) under the rubric of crimes against humanity, which is the crime category that is explicitly recognized in the Rome Statute and in the relevant legislation of the CAR… [T]he facts of the situation indicated that… crimes against humanity… capture the full essence of the policy of ethnic cleansing that was pursued.

There are two problems with this conclusion. Read the rest of this entry…

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The New UK Government Wants To Scrap the Human Rights Act. Does the Act Matter, and Can Anything Be Done To Save It?

Published on May 27, 2015        Author: 

The quick answers to the above two questions are Yes and Maybe.  Despite the statutory framework that devolved power to legislative bodies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the UK parliament has the power to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act (“HRA”).  Yet there are significant legal, constitutional and political aspects that will determine the future of the HRA.  Before delving into these, it is worth asking why repeal is even on the agenda.

This proposal is not new. The Conservative party promised to repeal the HRA in 2010 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, but ended up governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. A Commission on a Bill of Rights was set up instead, but failed to reach a consensus. In the 2015 manifesto the pledge re-emerged.  Having won a majority on the May 7th Prime Minister David Cameron is now pressing ahead. (Also high on his legislative agenda is a referendum on EU membership). The government claims scrapping the HRA would:

  • Break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK” and,
  • “Stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.”

It also intends to go ahead with a “British Bill of Rights” to:

  • “Remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights.”
  • “Reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of wider society”, and
  • “Ensure our Armed Forces overseas are not subject to persistent human rights claims that undermine their ability to do their job.” This argument will be familiar to readers of recent posts on the second of the two “Fog of Law” reports (2013 & 2015, Policy Exchange).

Readers will see the many legal reasons why most of these aims cannot be achieved by abolishing the HRA, Read the rest of this entry…

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