The Relevance of International Law in Promoting Global Peace and Security



International Law involves the codification of rules by actors in the international system in a way that sets precedents and normative expectations.

That is, it is a rule-based regime which aims at building order within the global community. It is asserted that the post-ontological era of mature and complex international law (IL) provides a sound rationale for normative behaviour and therefore is of paramount relevance to achieving global peace and security. The example of the United States' intervention in Iraq will be used to demonstrate the salience of this point.

It must first be acknowledged that IL is not always viewed so positively. This is largely due to the perception/reality gap which obscures the fact that military activity is the exception rather than the rule in international affairs.

In reality, most of the time the majority of interactions occur peacefully and efficiently. IL is a key facilitator of such.

Generally speaking a number of factors demonstrate the move towards IL. These include the data collected in UN Treaty archives, the powerful influence of global economic regimes such as the World Trade Organisation, the sociology of the transnational legal process itself, and the growing importance of international institutions and non-government organisations.

Indeed, the USA is itself party to more than 10,000 treaties. Additionally, the scope of IL is increasingly broad, covering things as diverse as arms control, the use of force, drug trafficking, immigration, human rights, environmental problems, trade and finance, and intellectual property.

The USA has been chosen to demonstrate the extreme relevance of IL to the international security environment precisely because it often defies or contravenes IL. This is based on the notion that if a principle of law withstands breaches - even by the USA - then its validity and potential longevity is reinforced. The USA has been highly contemptuous of IL at times, for example in its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, its abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, its refusal to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), and its increasingly unilateral and hegemonic behaviours.

This emerging character appears to be founded on the presumption that a strong state such as the USA only needs IL as a 'club' to keep weaker states in line. However, as former Soviet Union leader Gorbachev would testify, even superpowers come and go. Consequently, it is argued that the USA's situation demonstrates that respect for the burgeoning IL regime would likely allow the USA to achieve objectives that even its supreme power is incapable of realising. This indicates the paramount relevance of IL to global security.

At the most fundamental level, the decision to go to war in Iraq, demonstrates IL's importance. This is in part due to the principle of 'stigmatisation'. If you are an actor that is routinely perceived to be breaching IL, norms and standards in pursuit of national self-interest, then it is likely that stigmatisation will be of significant impact. This is because it makes justification and rationalisation necessary by raising issues of legitimacy and identity.

Accordingly, states often go to great lengths to avoid stigmatisation. The USA demonstrates this clearly; George Bush Jr has regularly attempted to justify intervention in Iraq on the basis of Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMDs), the threat of the capacity to produce WMDs, human rights issues and the involvement of global terrorist networks. This indicates that the stigmatisation related to breaches of IL affects even the most powerful of states. Clearly, this principle serves to place IL at the very centre of global security relations.

The relevance of IL is also made apparent by the USA's difficulty in engendering support. For example, in 2003 the USA requested that other countries commit more troops to Iraq. However, even those states most likely to do so - France, Germany and India - refused their support unless a UN Security Council Resolution was obtained. That is, they required legal validations. The USA's difficulty in inviting support for its actions, or indeed winning the peace, depicts the importance of international legitimacy in achieving objectives.

In theory, only the most powerful of states who do not believe they will ever be weak choose to routinely abuse the principles of IL. In a setting where its strength is superior to any other states' across almost any measure of power, the USA should not be surprised that lesser states cling to the protection and predictability offerred by IL.

The importance of IL in global affairs is also demonstrated by the USA's ability (or inability) to engage and cooperate with other international actors. For example, large USA oil companies argued that they could not afford to continue investing heavily in Iraq, toward the goal of restarting the country's oil productions. They reasoned that this was due to the lack of legitimate political authority in Iraq and their fear that contracts signed would not carry the force of law.

Similarly, the USA's refusal to abide by IL has greatly hampered relations and cooperation with the UN and its respective bodies. With UN support, the USA would have likely had more success with reconstruction and its 'peace-making' activities would have assumed a greater sense of legitimacy. Clearly, accordance with IL aids diplomacy. It is asserted that if - it had the force of IL behind it - the USA would have had far greater success in achieving the goals which even its supreme power is incapable of bringing within grasp.

Criminal aspects of IL are also relevant. If the USA was supportive of IL, it is likely that an international war crimes tribunal would have been formed in Iraq. Such a body would have had the capacity to objectively ascertain the criminality of the USA's 'most wanted' list.

Following this, in the circumstance that the USA was pursuing an arrest and a fatal shoot-out occurred, the victim would have died as a criminal resisting arrest for the horrific crimes, rather than as an Islamic martyr made heroic by his resistance to overwhelming American force. This could have had massive implications for the way that the USA was perceived within Iraq, by the broader Islamic people and indeed by the world at large. America may be a superpower, but unless it can engender respect for its ways and means, it has little hope of achieving its long-term goals.

In this way it can be seen that although the USA continues to flout IL when it sees fit, many countries, including its closest allies, view IL as fundamental to the creation of a stable and predictable world order. The assertions above also indicate that the USA is in critical need of the legitimacy provided by accordance with IL in order to achieve its own goals; even the USA cannot afford to ignore the majesty of IL.

This is saliently demonstrated by the USA's intervention in Iraq and its aftermath, a travesty which may at least in part, be attributed to the USA's defiance of IL, norms and standards. Thus, it is argued that IL is a major force in contemporary international security affairs; states rely on it, invoke it, observe it and are influenced by it in almost every aspect of their foreign relations. Perhaps this recognition has the capacity to make the achievement of 'global security' a more reachable vision.


Dr. Daniel Ringuet (PhD) is currently a Sessional Lecturer at Griffith University Australia.