Editor’s Note: This post forms part of a symposium being run by EJIL:Talk! and Opinio Juris in relation to Simon Chesterman’s article “Asia’s Ambivalence About International Law & Institutions: Past, Present, and Futures“, which is available here in draft form, the final version appearing later this month in EJIL. Starting on Monday, the two blogs are publishing a number of posts discussing the article, and we thank all of those who have contributed to this symposium.
Asia is a vast region and encompasses more States and a larger population than any other region in the world. Asia also presents historical, linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity, as well as wide-ranging stages of political evolution and economic development. Asia indeed defies an easy definition. It is therefore difficult to speak, in a general term, of Asia with respect to any subject. International law and institutions are no exception. There is a wide variation in Asian States’ engagement with international law and institutions. For example, many States in East Asia are actively participate in various international regimes and attach great importance to international cooperation. On the other hand, some Asian States still adhere to the unrealistic, outdated notion of sovereignty and refuse to engage with other States. It should also be pointed out that Asian States’ attitudes towards international law and institutions are not static but evolving. In this comment, I will confine myself to Asian States’ participation in international adjudication, which may be considered one of the most revealing yardsticks to measure their attitudes toward international law and institutions.
Much has been said about the Asian States’ passivity towards international law and institutions. Various explanations have been given for such reticence, ranging from the Asian culture and tradition which prefer virtue and harmony to law and adjudication to the prevailing distrust of the law and institutions which were essentially a product of the Western civilization (and thus perceived to be biased in favour of the West) and in whose creation and developments Asian states did not play significant roles.
At least in terms of the number of disputes submitted to international adjudication and their political and legal context, it would be difficult to characterize the attitude of Asian States toward international law and adjudication as positive. For example, there had been only three cases involving Asian states that had been referred to the Permanent Court of International Justice during its entire period of activities (S.S. Wimbledon, 1923; Denunciation of the Treaty of 2 November 1865 between China and Belgium, 1928; Interpretation of the Statute of the Memel Territory, 1932). The picture was not much different in the subsequent early period of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), during which many Asian States obtained independence mostly from the Western colonial powers. Iran was the first Asian State to appear before the ICJ in 1952 in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. case but Iran was taken to the Court by the United Kingdom. The Court eventually found that it lacked jurisdiction to entertain the dispute. Then India was the next Asian State to appear before the Court in the case concerning Right of Passage over Indian Territory in 1955. However, India was also taken to the Court by Portugal. In 1959, Cambodia instituted the proceedings against Thailand in the Temple of Preah Vihear case, and that was the first case involving the two Asian States before the ICJ. Subsequently in the 1970s, India and Pakistan were involved in the two cases before the Court (Appeal Relating to the Jurisdiction of the ICAO (India v. Pakistan), 1972; Case concerning Trial of Pakistani Prisoners of War (Pakistan v. India), 1973). In the 1980s, Iran was involved in two disputes with the United States before the ICJ. However, those instances were rather exceptions than the rules (US Dipolmatic and Consular Staff in Teheran (USA v. Iran), 1980; Aerial Incident of 3 July 1988 (Iran v. USA), 1989-1996 (discontinuance)).