We Hardly Knew Ye? “General Principles” as a Source of International Law

The source of law recognized in article 38(1)(c) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, the so-called “general principles of law recognized by civilized nations”, occupies a place at the margins of international law. Some have argued that these general principles do not constitute an independent source of binding legal norms.[1] Others recognize the source’s formal independence, but simply claim that it is of little practical significance; Professor Mark Janis has bluntly claimed of these general principles – perhaps with some regret – that “you can be an effective, card-carrying international lawyer and not believe in them!”[2]

And yet “general principles” are striking, for they are not grounded in express state consent – as are treaty-based obligations – or in state acquiescence – as are custom-based obligations. They present an opportunity to ground the aspirations of international jurists in formal, positive law, without resorting to (too moralizing) “natural law”. Resort to “general principles” in fora of international law – whether in the classroom, the International Court of Justice, or the United Nations’ cafeteria – may signal the extent to which jurists and state officials accede to and are prepared to recognize a body of international norms not strictly generated by state consent.

In spite of their theoretical interest, there remain some disagreements over what may constitute a “general principle of law recognized by civilized nations”.  Turning…

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The Perception of “Victor’s Justice” in the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda

In the article “Beyond Victor’s Justice? The Challenge of Prosecuting the Winners at the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda,”[1] Victor Peskin says that he is concerned with the perpetuation by the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) of the “victor’s justice” problem that plagued the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals. Although the ICTY and the ICTR are undoubtedly more fair than the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals were, insofar as they attempt to prosecute both the “winning” and the “losing” sides of the conflict, Peskin argues that the ICTY and the ICTR’s lack of enforcement powers makes it easy for victorious states to withhold evidence and the general assistance these tribunals need to investigate and prosecute suspects. As a result, Peskin argues that, over the years, few Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front army (RPF) and Croatian suspected war criminals have been indicted by the ICTY and the ICTR.

In my opinion, while in practice states cannot be compelled to cooperate with war crimes investigations, it is in their best interest to comply with the tribunals’ orders and to refrain from obstructing the investigations. Firstly, as Payam Akhavan has argued in his article “Beyond Impunity: Can International Criminal Justice Prevent Future Atrocities?” and as I previously argued on this blog[2], it is no longer profitable for political parties to be associated “with…

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Is the Australian Model the Future for Investor-State Arbitration?

In January, I posted an entry on the Pac Rim case and arguments concerning the desirability of promoting investor-state arbitration. [1] While investor-state arbitration leads to a situation where a foreign investor sues a sovereign state over the latter’s attempt to create laws which promote public health/utility, I maintained in my post that investor-state arbitration is still an attractive forum for international dispute resolution since it guarantees a degree of impartiality. The current government of Australia has adopted a policy position which rejects the use of investor-state arbitration in future trade deals; this policy stance could create a useful test-case in order to determine whether other countries would be wise to follow Australia’s lead.

Last April, the Australian government adopted the following policy statement:

“The Gillard Government supports the principle of national treatment – that foreign and domestic businesses are treated equally under the law. However, the Government does not support provisions that would confer greater legal rights on foreign businesses than those available to domestic businesses. Nor will the Government support provisions that would constrain the ability of Australian governments to make laws on social, environmental and economic matters in circumstances where those laws do not discriminate between domestic and foreign businesses.” [2]

There is some debate as to how expansively the policy statement should be read. [3] Some believe that it means that the Australian government will simply…

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March 13, 2012
BY Isabelle Gilles

1 Comment


India as the “pharmacy of the poor”, threatened by EU-India Free Trade Agreement?

The European Union (EU) and India have been discussing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) since 2005, but it has not been agreed upon yet[1]. One of the issues in the negotiations, but perhaps more importantly an issue for health related NGOs in developing countries, is the strict regime the EU would want India to implement relating to Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). India is already a member to the World Trade Organization[2], which means that it is also a member to the Trade-Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement[3]. The EU considers that India’s protection of IPR is still not strict enough[4].

Reactions to this FTA are strong, especially from international organisations that need India’s generic medicine to be able to afford the treatments they are providing to poor countries[5]. I will limit my analysis to HIV victims. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), because of the competition among companies selling generic medicines, prices have dropped dramatically; as an example, HIV medicine has dropped 99% in the past ten years[6]. India is an essential player on this field, as “more than 80% of the HIV medicines used to treat 6.6 million people in developing countries come from Indian producers, and 90% of pediatric HIV medicines are Indian-produced”[7].  MSF is particularly worried of the enforcement measures sought by the EU: it could prevent generic…

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Nothing new under the sun: the ICJ renders its judgment in the Jurisdictional Immunities of the State Case

In my previous entry, titled “The Changing Landscape of International Law: Investor-State Arbitration and the Case of Pac Rim Cayman LLC v. El Salvador”, I wrote about how bilateral investment treaties (BITs) have altered the traditional paradigm of public international law. Investor-state arbitration clauses in BITs provide the mechanisms whereby individuals (including corporations), who do not possess international legal personality, are able to sue foreign states. BITs are somewhat exceptional, however, because they explicitly provide the framework under which individuals can sue foreign states; they do not change or replace the general rule of international law concerning sovereign immunity. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) released its decision on February 3rd in the Jurisdictional Immunities of the State Case (Germany v. Italy), reaffirming traditional concepts of sovereign immunity in public international law. [1]

Germany applied to the ICJ for a ruling that certain decisions of Italian courts violated its sovereign immunity. The case before the ICJ arose in reaction to civil actions brought before Italian and Greek courts in which individuals who were persecuted under the Nazi occupation during the Second World War sued the German state. In 2004, the Italian Corte di Cassazione ruled that Germany could not rely on sovereign immunity for acts carried out during the Second World War because the acts in question constituted international crimes. [2] This ruling led to an influx of cases in…

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Les clauses « Buy American » du gouvernement Obama et le chapitre 10 de l’ALÉNA

En 2009, le gouvernement Obama inclut dans l’American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) une clause « Buy American ».  Un an plus tard, le Canada réussit à obtenir une exemption grâce à un accord particulier[1].  Pour y arriver, le gouvernement canadien doit faire des concessions importantes. Les marchés publics des provinces et des municipalités sont ouverts aux compagnies américaines.  Plusieurs critiques soulignent la lenteur du processus en indiquant que la plupart des fonds de l’ARRA ont déjà été distribués.

En septembre 2011, au même moment où l’accord spécial entre le Canada et États-Unis prend fin, le gouvernement Obama présente l’American Jobs Act (AJA), son nouveau plan de relance.  Au grand désarroi du gouvernement canadien, ce dernier contient une clause «Buy American » semblable à celle contenue dans l’ARRA. La section 4 de l’AJA stipule qu’aucun financement ne peut être octroyé pour la construction, le maintien ou  la réparation de bâtiment ou de travaux publics si le fer, l’acier et les produits manufacturiers utilisés ne proviennent pas des États-Unis.  Le plan de relance est structuré de manière à ce que les subventions soient octroyées par le fédéral aux États et aux municipalités.  L’American Job Act n’est pas devenu loi, car le projet n’a pas accumulé le nombre de votes nécessaires au sénat.  Cependant, une  législation spécifique contenant une clause « Buy American » et un système d’allocation…

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What Should Happen to an Economic or Social Right When a State Cannot Afford to Fulfill It?

Social rights – which traditionally include circumscribed rights to healthcare, education, social security and housing – amount to a tall order for States. Even residents’ right to ‘healthcare services’ can, on its own, amount to an impressive demand on any State’s financial resources. To limit the ambit of what social rights require of any State, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights only obliges State Parties to undertake steps “to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized”.[1] The manner in which we understand how financial constraints affect human rights will influence how we perceive social rights, States’ obligations to fulfill them, and a Court’s role in enforcing them. To set the stage, this note returns to the South African Constitutional Court’s foundational decision, Soobramoney v. Minister of Health (Kwazulu-Natal).[2]

Where Rights Are Limited by Financial Constraints

The appellant, one Thiagrag Soobramoney, had entered the final stages of chronic renal failure. His life could have been prolonged by means of regular renal dialysis. He was, however, denied this treatment by local health authorities. In brief, the hospital had adopted a policy of only affording renal dialysis treatment to patients who suffered from acute renal failure, which could be remedied by renal dialysis, or to patients who were eligible and waiting for a kidney transplant.…

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L’Union européenne peut-elle être tenue responsable des violations des droits sociaux et économiques des Grecs?

Le gouvernement de coalition de la Grèce serait aujourd’hui même parvenu à un accord sur des nouvelles mesures d’austérité. L’Union Européenne, la Banque Centrale Européenne et le Fonds Monétaire International exigent des mesures suffisantes avant d’accepter de faire un nouveau prêt de 130 milliards d’euros à la Grèce, sans lequel la Grèce sera en défaut de payer ses créanciers le 20 mars prochain.

Les mesures comportent entre autre une diminution de 22 % du salaire minimum, le congédiement de 15 000 fonctionnaires, une multitude de nouvelles taxes (impôts sur le revenu, taxe sur la vente, etc.), et des diminutions dans les programmes de privatisation prévu par le gouvernement. Les pensions de retraite ont résisté à la coupe in extremis.

La Grèce vit des mesures d’austérité depuis 2 ans. Nul besoin de préciser que les premières coupes n’ont pas eu tellement de succès, la situation de la Grèce aujourd’hui parle d’elle-même. L’économie n’est pas le sujet de ce blog, mais il est difficile de concevoir que couper généreusement les revenus d’une population déjà prise à la gorge permettra à la Grèce de stimuler son économie. Comment celle-ci peut-elle trouver des moyens de rembourser la dette autrement qu’en réempruntant (à ses mêmes créanciers, tout de même) à moyen terme si ces créanciers eux-mêmes la forcent à mettre sa population dans la rue? Comment les petites et moyennes entreprises grecques sont-elles…

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Dodd-Frank and Unintended Consequences

While the  Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act, passed in 2010, was mostly concerned about financial reform, it included a provision, Section 1502, chiefly through the efforts of Congressman Jim McDermott, aimed at increasing transparency about mining activities in the DRC by forcing US companies to disclose whether the sources of their mining activities were in certain areas of the DRC or unspecified neighbouring companies.

The result has been devastating to say the least. David Aronson’s op-ed in the NY Times last summer details some of the unforeseen damage on the mining industry in the eastern part of the country:

The law has brought about a de facto embargo on the minerals mined in the region, including tin, tungsten and the tantalum that is essential for making cellphones. The smelting companies that used to buy from eastern Congo have stopped. No one wants to be tarred with financing African warlords — especially the glamorous high-tech firms like Apple and Intel that are often the ultimate buyers of these minerals. It’s easier to sidestep Congo than to sort out the complexities of Congolese politics — especially when minerals are readily available from other, safer countries.

While a recent UN report acknowledges some successes of the legislation, it notes that the falling production due to the law has led to “”rising unemployment and worsened poverty among the tens of thousands…

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Why promulgating international law is a key US interest

Political realists tend to be wary of international law, seeing it as an artificial and foreign encroachment on domestic sovereignty. Goldsmith and Posner argue that states’ commitment to international law is illusory; states will only comply with any particular provision of international law as long as their self-interest so warrants, and will abandon it as soon as this ceases to be the case.[1] Such views are especially prominent in the US, where constitutional obstacles and political conservatism have kept the US from playing as active a role in the international legal order as one might expect for a country of its stature. For instance, the US is one of only two countries (along with Somalia) that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and one of only three countries (along with Sudan and Israel) to have withdrawn its signature from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; both are major treaties which the US itself played an active role in drafting. There has even been sporadic (if mostly marginal) talk over the years of withdrawing from the United Nations.

US conservative opposition to international law can best be summarized in the words of John Bolton, former ambassador to the UN:

It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest

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