Lies, Damned Lies, and the International Rule of Law
Opinio Juris Symposium
7 Pages Posted: 18 May 2016 Last revised: 19 May 2016
Date Written: May 17, 2016
Imprecision of meaning in international law is rarely accidental. Diplomacy is an architecture of compromise, with states routinely adopting malleable or self-serving definitions depending on their interests or aspirations. So it is with the international rule of law. A decade ago, every member state of the United Nations recognized the need for “universal adherence to and implementation of the rule of law at both the national and international levels” and reaffirmed their commitment to “an international order based on the rule of law and international law.” Any term that can garner such universal support, from Norway to North Korea, is either so vague as to incorporate radically different interpretations of its content or so vacuous that there is no content to speak of.
Academics, generally, prefer precision. Robert McCorquodale is to be commended for his thoughtful and thought-provoking effort to pin down what the “international rule of law” can and should mean. In particular, he is right to push back against simplistic analogies between the concept of the rule of law at the domestic and international level. The function that law plays in a notional horizontal society of equals — the sovereign equality that is the founding myth of international law — is radically different from the role it plays in a vertically ordered state in which power is distributed by reference to a sovereign or in accordance with some form of constitution. But this structural difference also points to the problem with McCorquodale’s approach to defining the international rule of law.
Keywords: international law, rule of law, human rights
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