British Defence Secretary John Reid calls for international law to be completely re-written to facilitate fighting global terrorism. He wants the Geneva Convention to be re-thought, too:
“We risk trying to fight 21st-century conflict with 20th-century rules which, when they were devised, did not contemplate the type of enemy which is now extant,” he said. “The laws of the 20th century placed constraints on us all which enhanced peace and protected liberty. We must ask ourselves whether, as the new century begins, they will do the same.”
I think he’s right. The mighty edifice that is international law was mainly constructed just after the second world war, when states were the only real international actors that could bring force to bear. Today, though, they are not.
Terrorist organisations are battering away at the front door, with a view to affect international affairs, and not just the domestic issues they used to restrict themselves to. Granted, their weapon of choice would be better compared to an unsharpened chisel than to a battering ram, and they are nowhere close to being able to bring the whole structure of international society down. But they are a part of our international system today, whether we like it or not, and they present a growing threat.
As long as international law doesn’t recognise the role they now play in the international system, efforts to combat their threat will prove ineffective. Instead of actually acting directly to oppose them, we’ll tie ourselves in legal and philosophical knots, as we try to shoehorn them into our current laws.
Terrorist organisations aren’t the only issue that our international law is currently ill-equipped to deal with. Failed states don’t fit either. How do you apply a legal system based on state sovereignty, when there is no state, just a lawless territory?
We need to take the time to make an urgent review of just what the international dynamics of this planet are today, and adjust our laws accordingly.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting we tear up the current rule-book and start again. We actually have a pretty good legal system which has – sort of – worked for the past 50 years. But if we want it to work for the next 50 years, we need to figure out what laws still apply, what laws no longer apply, and what new laws we should apply.
Update: The Responsibility to Protect agreement, by the way, is a very good start.
…back in September 2005 at a UN summit, every member (including the Sudan!) signed an agreement on the so-called “responsibility to protect” allowing foreign powers to intervene in a country if the national authorities fail to protect their population from things such as genocide.
Although, depressingly, the fine words of the agreement don’t yet seem to have been followed up by the rest of the world in their dealings with Sudan.