‘There is no real system of international law. It is merely a reflection of international politics’

 'There is no real system of international law. It is merely a reflection of international politics'. Discuss

There are International Laws and conventions yet it would be stretching the facts to refer to them as fully- fledged system. Jeremy Bentham originally used the term international law in 1780.[1] Prior to the 20th century what little international law there was usually the result of treaty arrangements between two or more nation states. In Europe the settlement of Vienna after the Napoleonic War kept the continent relatively peaceful until the First World War.[2] Although what little international law there was seemed to be morally binding on all nations that had agreed to them there was no organisation to enforce their compliance. If nations had disputes between each other over breaches of international law or other grievances the only means to settle them were through diplomacy or war. Such an organisation it was though may have prevented the First World War it formed the basis for the League of Nations.[3] The League of Nations proved ineffective in forming a system of international law and was unable to stop acts of aggression such as those by Italy, Germany and Japan. The League of Nations was weakened by the absence of the US and Soviet Union whilst Britain and France did not have the willpower or resources to deal with aggression. Britain for instance could have used the Royal Navy to stop the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.[4] The area in which international law was most well developed was in the conventions regarding the rule of wars that were contained in the Geneva and Hague conventions. However, countries that signed these conventions were not bound to keep them against countries that had not. The Germans ignored them completely on the Eastern Front against Soviet Union during the Second World War. The Iraqi’s and Iranian’s did not abide by the conventions during their war of 1980-89. The conventions do not cover civil wars such as the one in Spain during the 1930s or more recent conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia.[5]

The United Nations replaced the League of Nations after the Second World War and to some extent has had more success in enforcing international law and peacekeeping although a complete international law system still does not exist. The enforcement of international law or UN resolutions still relies on nation states to do the enforcing or indeed to pass the resolutions in the first place. During the cold war how breaches in international law were dealt with depended on which country was breaching international law and its position within the cold war. The US or the Soviet Union would not act against breaches committed by its allies or client states. For instance the US did not interfere with Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor as they considered the Indonesian government was an important part of its anti-Communist alliance in the Pacific alongside Australia and New Zealand.[6]  The Americans only allowed the Australians to lead a peace keeping force that effectively restored the independence of East Timor with the eruption of vigilante attacks on the East Timor population and long after the communist threat was over.[7] The UN was able to send forces to support South Korea after being attacked by North Korea only because the Soviet Union failed to veto such a move on the Security Council (Hobsbawm, 1994, p. 51).[8]  After that the most successful UN intervention to uphold international law was the US led coalition’s liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991.  The UN proved less effective in dealing with the conflicts in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda because UN peace- keeping operations and international laws were not developed to tackle civil wars.[9]

The US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 supposedly to uphold international law and prove that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was far more controversial and was only actively supported by Britain, Australia and Spain. Aside from Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard was the Americans most supportive ally.[10]  This invasion also raised questions about whether states had the right to intervene in another state’s affairs and remove its regime on the pretext that it posed a threat to its neighbours without the specific authorisation of the UN through a resolution.  The US also claimed that invading Iraq was an important part of the war on terror. The quick removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime did not find any weapons of mass destruction. It did lead to mass anti-war demonstrations not only in the US, Britain and Australia but other nations that were opposed to what they regarded as thinly disguised American interference and aggression.[11]  It has also provided a rationale for al Qaeda attacks on Madrid in March 2004 and London in July 2005 whilst the carnage in Iraq continues.[12]

Overall then international law has not been organised into a fully viable autonomous system in its own right.  Although the UN has been more successful than the League of Nations it has often seemed just as powerless in enforcing international law. Where the UN has successfully enforced international law it has done so with the support of the US and its allies in NATO, Australia and Japan. Even then things have only been done when all five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, France, China, the US and the Soviet Union or Russia) have agreed on action or those that do not agree have not used their veto. International law may be regarded, as being binding there has to be the political will to enforce it through diplomacy, economic sanctions and military force. Ultimately those that have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity can be brought to justice as the surviving members of the Nazis leadership were at the Nuremberg trials or some of those involved in such crimes in Bosnia are currently being. In other areas international law has expanded through bodies such as the European Union that has directives that have to be enacted by its member states but it is confined to Europe and only has a regional rather than a global outlook.

Bibliography

Brendon P (2000) Dark Valley – a Panorama of the 1930s, Jonathan Cape, London

Evans G & Newnham J (1998) Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin Reference, London, New York and Camberwell

Hirsh M (2003) At war with ourselves – Why America is squandering the chance to build a better world, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Hobsbawm E (1994) Age of Extremes – the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London

Hurd, D (1997) The Search for Peace – A century of Peace Diplomacy, Little Brown and Company, London

Toolis K – So what do they want? Daily Mirror 9 July 2005 from www.mirror.co.uk

Watson J (1997) Success in World History since 1945, John Murray, London

Welsh F (2004) Great Southern Land – A New History of Australia, Penguin, London, New York and Camberwell

[1] Evans & Newnham, 1998, Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin p.261

[2] Hurd, 1997, The Search for Peace – A century of Peace Diplomacy, Little Brown and Company, London p.6

[3] Hobsbawm, 1994, Age of Extremes – the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, Londo

[4] Brendon, 2000, Dark Valley – a Panorama of the 1930s, Jonathan Cape, London p. 363

[5] Evans & Newnham, 1998, Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin pp.97-98

[6] Watson, 1997, Success in World History since 1945, John Murray, London  p.307

[7] Welsh, 2004, Great Southern Land – A New History of Australia, Penguin, London, New York and Camberwell

[8]  Hobsbawm, 1994, Age of Extremes – the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London

[9] Hurd, 1997, The Search for Peace – A century of Peace Diplomacy, Little Brown and Company, London

[10] Welsh, 2004, Great Southern Land – A New History of Australia, Penguin, London, New York and Camberwell

[11] Hirsh, 2003, At war with ourselves – Why America is squandering the chance to build a better world, Oxford University Press, Oxford p. 51

[12] Toolis, So what do they want? Daily Mirror 9 July 2005 from www.mirror.co.uk

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