International law, strictly speaking, is a powerful and inter-state legal fiction. It does not exist in any real and meaningful sense outside of the political will and strategic necessity of the countries or collections of countries with the strength and desire to enforce it. Save for the United Nations and the International Court of Justice – which have their limitations – there is no overarching legal system with a monopoly of power to compel states to obey it, and there is no international policeman. At best it is a series of international treaties which most countries stick to most of the time, or, at worst, a mechanism used by the most powerful states to control weaker states.

Today I attended my first postgraduate lecture on International Human Rights Law. I was not looking forward to this class at all. Whispering at the back of the class, my classmate and I agreed that this class was boring. Actually, on further reflection, this class was not boring – and even if it were, there is no need for education to be entertaining. Our lecturer, an IHR lawyer with experience of the UN, was anything but boring. He was well-informed, witty, and engaging. He even articulated many of my own misgivings about International Law. In fact, at nine in the morning, what I could then only understand as a sense of boredom was my own unwillingness to tune in – my inner optimist’s frustrated feeling of betrayal at the very notion of international justice.

“When do countries adhere to international law?” we were asked. When it bloody well suits them, was my immediate thought, and I said as much – without the “bloody well” that is. It was pointed out that nation states have a better track record of obeying international law than citizens of particular states have of obeying national laws. That sounds reasonable to me. If people are motivated by self-interest then it is reasonable to assume that when laws get in the way of their self-interest then people will, when they have a decent chance of evading detection and capture, break the law.

Countries too are driven by their own national interests, but the difference between states and citizens is that states have a greater say in what laws govern them on the international stage. It can be argued then that international law reflects the negotiated national interests of the state signatories of international treaties. Traffic regulations would certainly be different had citizens to have as much individual leverage on national legislation. After the lecture I discovered that someone had stolen the gel seat covering on my bicycle. I took that as a sign.

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