The Brookings Doha Center hosted a discussion on the role of international law in the Arab world on May 31, 2009. The panelists included Mohamed Ali, President of the Criminal Court of Alexandria; Mutlaq Al Qahtani, an international law expert who previously served as Minister Plenipotentiary and Deputy Permanent Representative to the State of Qatar to the United Nations (UN); and Susan Karamanian, Associate Dean for International and Comparative Legal Studies at The George Washington University Law School. Hady Amr, Director of the Brookings Doha Center, moderated the discussion.
Karamanian opened the talk by stressing that international law does not only revolve around the decisions of the UN Security Council or the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Rather, international law influences our day-to-day lives, whether we are purchasing medicines that were patented in other countries or crossing international borders when we take airplanes. The notion that the term “international law” should be invoked only when discussing issues such as Darfur or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a misconception. However, despite the fact that international law can play a role in so many different arenas, Karamanian noted that there are some serious challenges the system faces. First of all, the system of international law lacks a constitution and a deliberative body to firmly establish the rules. Even if we share certain values as a global community, this does not always translate into clear definitions and mandated actions. Indeed, if there is no single judicial body that has the authority to hear disputes and enforce decisions, can this even really be considered law? Another challenge Karamanian raised is how we define the players in the international legal system. Today, with organizations such as the World Trade Organization and regional blocs like the European Union, nation-states are not the only global actors. Taking into account these complications is just the first step to really understanding international law.
Ali spoke next, raising the issue of the credibility of a system of international law given the imbalance of power between countries that are supposed to subscribe to its principles. The fact is that factors such as military power, natural resources, and wealth give certain countries advantages and more say in the functioning of an international system. He argued that organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund may be international in name, but they are funded by the world’s leading powers which can continue to unduly influence these organizations. Ali stated that a unilateral use of force by a single, powerful country to enforce international law as it sees fit in his view is not legitimate and contradictory to the spirit of international law. He ended by emphasizing that the same criteria should be applied to all who are governed by a system of international law if this is to be a system of justice that is universally accepted.
Al Qahtani addressed the specific issue of how Arab societies and governments tackle the issue of international law, arguing that in general the Arab world has not learned enough about the various international law treaties and therefore has not even attempted to use international law to its benefit. He stated that if civil society or governments in the Arab world hold the view that international laws have been violated be it by the Sudanese Government in Darfur, Israel in Gaza or America in Iraq, they should harness the system accordingly. In contrast, Al Qahtani argued that countries like the United States have “benefitted a great deal from international law.” He cited the example of American hostages held in Iran in 1979 when the U.S. Embassy was taken over. This was deemed a violation of international law and the United States made sure that Iran was at the ICJ, using the international law system appropriately. The Arab world’s failure to invoke the system in the same way is a testimony to the fact that more attention must be paid to international law. Al Qahtani singled out the Gulf Cooperation Council countries as potential leaders in this effort, given their financial power in the region.
Following the remarks of the three speakers was a lively and thorough question and answer session that covered a variety of topics. One audience member raised the question of what kind of binding standards are in place for when local law contradicts international law. The panelists acknowledged the difficulty inherent in this situation, given that individual treaties are unique, as are the decisions of various countries on what level of priority to attach to international law. Another attendee expressed the desire for a more equitable system of international law with less superpower influence. There was also a brief discussion of the role of international law given the current global financial crisis.