International Law: Reality or Myth

Whenever a lawyer or historian describes how a particular action “violates international law” many people stop listening or reading further. It is a bit alienating to hear the words “this action constitutes a violation of international law” time and time again – and especially at the end of a debate when a speaker has no other arguments available. The statement is inevitably followed by: “…and it is a war crime and it denies people their human rights.” A plethora of international law violations are perpetrated by every major power in the world each day, and thus, the empty invocation of international law does nothing but reinforce our own sense of impotence and helplessness in the face of international lawlessness.

The United States, alone, and on a daily basis violates every principle of international law ever envisioned: unprovoked wars of aggression; unmanned drone attacks; tortures and renditions; assassinations of our alleged “enemies”; sales of nuclear weapons; destabilization of unfriendly governments; creating the largest prison population in the world – the list is virtually endless.

Obviously one would wish that there existed a body of international law that could put an end to these abuses, but such laws exist in theory, not in practice. Each time a legal scholar points out the particular treaties being ignored by the superpowers (and everyone else) the only appropriate response is “so what!” or “they always say that.”  If there is no enforcement mechanism to prevent the violations, and no military force with the power to intervene on behalf of those victimized by the violations, what possible good does it do to invoke principles of “truth and justice” that border on fantasy?

The assumption is that by invoking human rights principles, legal scholars hope to reinforce the importance of, and need for, such a body of law. Yet, in reality, the invocation means nothing at the present time, and goes nowhere. In the real world, it would be nice to focus on suggestions that are enforceable, and have some potential to prevent the atrocities taking place around the globe.

Scholars who invoke international law principles would do well to add to their analysis some form of action or conduct at the present time that might prevent such violations from happening.

Alternatively, praying for rain sounds as effective and rational as citing international legal principles to a lawless President, and his ruthless military.

Luke Hiken is an attorney who has engaged in the practice of criminal, military, immigration, and appellate law. Marti Hiken is the director of Progressive Avenues. She is the former associate director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and former chair of the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force. Read other articles by Marti Hiken and Luke Hiken, or visit Marti Hiken and Luke Hiken's website.