Keeping a Cool Head as a Worker for Peace, Justice and Equality While Navigating the Complexities of International Law

Posted on 30th June 2012 in Notes, Reflections

“International law and the international legal system are not static and have changed over time.”
- Joseph Weiler

The principles of International Law (IL)¹ are devised to establish a foundation for international relations and to protect, essentially, the self-determination of states and individuals.²  This is a very idealistic and broad statement covering a lot of ground. The principles and practices of international law and their effectiveness are questionable and often garner a great deal of criticism. The question of the effectiveness of IL is paramount in understanding its evolution, its application, and whether it is just. This brief survey discusses what I consider to be critical for peace workers who will engaged directly, or by proxy, in IL’s application – subject to its stipulations and boundary conditions, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad (the determination of which is highly subjective). The basic principle I am interested in is the dynamics of international law; analogous, in this sense, to IL would be the theoretical principles of fluid dynamics which, by its language, implies the fluidity of IL. 3

The notion of peace as an absence of violence4 and the intentions of peace workers to establish such conditions, subject to the boundary conditions established in IL often cause internal conflict in the attitudes of Peace workers.5 Rightfully, it is frustrating to observe the unequal distribution of justice – especially if you’re in the midst of a crisis situation and in dire need of assistance to protect people and save lives, or if you’re in an academic environment arguing for/against the validity of the UN, the ICC, and other international bodies – who enact and enforce IL – based on a limited number of historical applications to conflict and crisis situations.

Looking at the latter case, that limited view tends to skew ones’ understanding of the intentions of IL and the fact that, from an historical perspective, the battery of IL is still relatively new. This argument does not promote or negate the validity of IL and the bodies that enact and enforce it, it rather asks that a peace worker develop an understanding that international law is a young and dynamic process that requires great intentions, great minds, great hearts and great souls to engage in its processes, further the field, establish accountability, work with great intentions, and not develop an attitude of anger, fear, and hatred towards the structural and procedural integrity void of the remarkable intentions of human beings trying to become, essentially, decent people and overcome, universally, the struggle for identity and legitimacy.

There is a substantial body of IL that establishes a base set of principles which seem to be accepted by most states – though, there is still a degree of fluidity with respect to the firmament of international law, which, arguably could be considered the: UN charter, Rome Statute, Nuremberg Principles, Hague Conventions, and Geneva Conventions. There is, still, a very young branch of IL which regards and responds to more recent developments in both international relations and new technologies of violence and war.

Regarding international relations we can consider the more social aspects of attitudes and opinions towards race, gender, social class, religion and other aspects of a persons individual and groups. The attitudes engendered regarding existing statues – old and new – and their employment are sometimes dubious in nature – typically being generated for the purposes of resource exploitation and territorial domination for strategic purposes. For example, we have seen in the last two or so decades a rise in non state actors engaging in what is defined as terrorist activities. Such activities called for new interpretations of existing statutes, development of new statutes for very specific situations for which there was no precedent in international law, and shifts in support for existing statutes.6 For example, the US withdrew in intent to support the ICC, has violated the right of non-intervention and has engaged in unilateral military operations in Iraq and Pakistan (which, by omission, does not suggest the US”s military action in Afghanistan were legally or morally justified).

With particular attention to the US, in this case, my observations of the anger and hatred it engenders among some of the students of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the World Peace Academy, I believe it is critical to acknowledge the difference between the intentions of IL and the equity and justice of their application. Again, the peace worker has a responsibility to understand the inherent difficulties of administering a highly complex system when the intentions of the state (or non-state) actors are not always clear or honest and it is precisely this reactivity engendered by the system that limits a peace workers ability to function effectively

Further, as implied in this reflection paper, the notion that law is a fluid process suggests that the statutes of law, as they exist now, and as new statutes are created as a result of new situations, should be challenged rhetorically and in practice and that new approaches and new systems should always be explored to evaluate whether there is, in fact, another process or processes available to accomplish the task of what the current infrastructure intends to do – enforce the provision for basic human rights (somewhat arbitrarily defined) and human needs (defined by the needs of basic physiological function). Thus, one should remain critical of such institutions and, as peace workers, should find creative and constructive approaches to furthering the discipline, and/or suggesting other means to ensure the basic principles of IL are upheld or transformed to accomplish their fundamental goals.


1. International Law being defined as the statutes of International Human Rights Law (IHRL), International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and International Criminal Law (ICL)

2. Antonio Cassese, International Law Second Edition (2005), Oxford University Press. Caseese outlines the basic principles of IL: the sovereign equality of states, non-intervention in the internal or external affairs of other states, prohibition of the threat or use of force, peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for human rights, self determination of people.

3. Joseph Weiler, The Geology of International Law, Heidelberg Journal of International Law, 64 (2004): 547 – 562

4. Baljit Singh Grewal, Johan Galtung: Positive and Negative Peace, School of Science Aukland University Of Technology, 2003

5. personal observations of the author during seminars at the World Peace Academy in Basel, Switzerland

6. Marc Weller, Settling Self-Determination Conflicts: Recent Developments, The Europeran Journal of International Law Vol. 20 No. 1, 2009

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