International law experts talk past, future of human rights law

Media Credit: Zach Brien | Photographer

At the event, panelists discussed the rise of certain countries in the development of international law and questioned the directions the field may be headed in.

Panelists discussed the impact of mass atrocities like the Holocaust on legal doctrine and practice at the Jacob Burns Law Library Wednesday.

The panel discussion focused on international legal proceedings like the Nuremberg Trials after World War II and the shortcomings of public international law to address certain crimes against humanity. About 70 people attended the event, which was hosted by GW Law School’s International and Comparative Law Program.

Rosa Celerio, the associate dean for international and comparative legal studies, said the post-World War II-era initially “bred support for universal regulations” in the field of international law to address crimes like genocide. But in recent years, commentators have criticized international law as a field for its lack of guidelines associated with crimes against humanity in areas like Latin America, she said.

“So a lot of the discussion today is we’re in the stage of development of international law and development,” Celerio said. “Do we really have a legal regime, can we make existing international rules and laws when it comes to mass atrocities especially when considering the criticisms of recent years?”

Thomas Buergenthal, a former International Court of Justice judge and a professor emeritus of comparative law, said that following World War II, most people could not imagine a world without a major war every 30 years, a routine occurrence at the time. He said that while it’s important to acknowledge that international law has played a role in ensuring peace, people must apply pressure on institutions to keep them in check.

“International law is too important to be left only to international lawyers,” Buergenthal said.

Sean Murphy, a professor of international law and a member of the United Nations’ International Law Commission, said that as the law stands at the moment, victims of crimes against humanity like torture cannot proceed on a group basis as victims of genocide are able to. He said he is working with colleagues at the International Law Commission to change this standard.

“As a community, it gives a group an identity saying, ‘We have the right to exist,’” Murphy said. “Group identity has been inscribed in our consciousness and therefore it is important to readdress the convention standards.”

Philippe Sands, a law professor at University College London, said he is saddened by the lack of involvement on the part of the United Kingdom and the United States in developing international law further. He said the two countries’ disinterest in improving the field has prompted new countries like China to take the helm at the creation of international law.

“The two countries that did more than any other to create a multilateral form of order have turned their back on it,” Sands said. “It’s extraordinarily curious then that in some domains, for example, international economic law, as a vacuum is created by the retreat of some countries, you find new countries stepping in.”

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