How Much "Law" Is There in "International Law"?

Bob Rae on our collective failure to properly enforce the rule of law.
By: /
April 9, 2014
Bob Rae

Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to Myanmar

In his famous speech at Fulton Missouri in 1946, Winston Churchill is famously remembered for his unforgettable phrase about "an iron curtain" coming down in the heart of Europe. Less known is that in this same speech Churchill pointed out that the entire experience of pre-war Europe had convinced him that the rule of law, whether at home or more broadly, "needs a good constabulary."

This is the issue at the heart of the debate around the "responsibility to protect." Since the emergence of the modern nation state several hundred years ago, it has been clearly understood that a sovereign's power depends on an effective monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and the ability to connect breaches of the law with enforcement of order and the requisite penalties.

For several hundred years we have wrestled with the issue of how to reach agreement on international norms against aggression between states, and, more recently, aggression and breaches of basic understandings of human rights within countries. "R2P" should not be seen as some kind of novelty, but rather as an expression of the very values that led to the Atlantic Charter, the UN Charter, and subsequent agreements on genocide and other crimes against humanity.

It can rightly be said that we now have a much deeper understanding of the values, norms, and behaviour that make this elaboration of the rule of law so necessary. We are watching in central Africa today the continuation of violence so brutal and widespread that it has rightly been called "Africa's World War." And, just as in the terrible conflicts of 1932-1945, we see that ethnic cleansing, genocide, the violation of various human rights, and mass destruction remains as the terrible orders of the day.

The inconvenient truth is that we can recognise and describe the tragedy, but governments of states are unwilling to match the loss of life with effective remedies. It is fashionable to blame the "United Nations" for this gap between crimes and enforcement (and punishment), but that ignores the difficult truth that it is modern governments themselves that have not been willing to match rhetoric with action.

The General Assembly rings with the cries of "never again," but there is no credible international approach to intervention. Still millions die without an effective response. The responsibility for the failure to enforce the rule of law lies not so much in New York as it does in Washington, Ottawa, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and all the other national capitals in which states have completely failed to figure out how and when to intervene. The lack of any consensus as to how to do this has led to a crisis of faith and belief in the very international institutions that were set up after the supposed "wars to end all wars."

But the answer to this crisis is not to succumb to it, or to retreat to the notion that "intervention never works" or "there is no such thing as international law." We have to pick up the pieces, and insist that our governments keep working at it, and that the United Nations itself encourage the debates and decisions that are an essential part of building a better world.

There is no excuse for indifference, and no justification for retreat.

Throughout the month of April 2014, the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and will be publishing reflections on the lessons learned since the Rwandan Genocide from prominent Canadians who have shown leadership in promoting global humanitarianism as part of the series Canadian Voices on R2P.

Also in the series


Peacekeeping Does Not Have to Wait

Roméo Dallaire on how the international community can guarantee swift international action where civilians are under imminent threat.

Protecting the Responsiblity to Protect

The “responsibility to protect” be made real through “the capacity to deploy,” says Hugh Segal. Without that, the doctrine will lose salience.

New Tools to Prevent Mass Atrocities

Technology can be used to gather, analyze, and communicate information for the sake of predicting, preventing, and mitigating atrocities in an unprecedented way, argues Christopher Tuckwood.

The Role of the Churches in the Rwandan Genocide

Churches are uniquely positioned to address conflict before it gets out of hand, says Lois M Wilson. Yet they failed to act 20 years ago in Rwanda.

Renewing R2P

There is still much work to be done on how to define and apply R2P, but there is hope for the concept, says Lloyd Axworthy.

Today's Digital Witnesses Can Prevent Tomorrow's War Crimes

A growing cadre of scholars, practitioners, and hobbyists are leveraging new tools to help prevent gross violations of human rights and holding perpetrators to account after heinous crimes are committed, says Robert Muggah.

Returning to the Responsiblity to Protect

If we want to make R2P's hope of "never again" a reality, we need to turn away from the critique of sovereignty and the example of Libya, argues John Duncan.

Protecting R2P From Misuse

Acting on R2P inappropriately or invoking it as a pretext for other objectives like regime change can be as damaging as inaction to R2P’s long-run effectiveness, argues Maria L. Banda.

Time For Canada to Recommit to R2P

In the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, Canada has gone from being the most vocal supporter of the norm to one of its meekest.

Learning Something, Not Everything

Two decades ago, the global media virtually ignored the killing in Rwanda. Has it learned from its mistake since, asks Michael Valpy.

The Eight Lessons of Rwanda

Irwin Cotler on what we have learned in the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide.