The selectivity of the renegade left on international law

International human rights and humanitarian law is a common port of call for the Left in a great many domestic policy debates. This is despite international law being the product of nation-states pursuing their own interests on the international stage.


International law does not pull states towards compliance when this contrary to their national interests. What international law can achieve is therefore rather limited.

International law is a part of international politics. States enter into treaties and other international legal institutions when doing so serves their interests. Any cooperation among states is a by-product of that rational, self-interested act.

The laws of war are governed by reciprocity, which can produce self-enforcing patterns of behaviour. Eric Posner explains:

The laws of war have a simple economic explanation.

When two states go to war, they foresee an endpoint, which will typically involve certain concessions by one state—the transfer of territory, monetary reparations, etc.

Given that both states will end up at some new equilibrium in terms of territory or wealth or power, it is best for both states if they can reach that equilibrium cheaply rather than expensively.

Before the twentieth century, European states and other major powers would presumptively respect the laws of war in wars among themselves but not wars with tribal groups they aimed to subdue.

In World War II, the rules were respected on the western front but not on the eastern front. On the Eastern front, there were long supply lines and the massive number of prisoners who were taken—both of these factors made it extremely costly to hold POWs in humane conditions. The Nazis also regarded Russians as subhuman, when one side launches a total war, the other side has no reason to respect the laws of war.

Human rights laws attempts to produce public goods and is thus subject to collective action problems.

International law that has not been ratified by domestic political processes has a severe democracy deficit because it is not subject to any kind of democratic electoral accountability.

International law-making itself is generally less transparent than domestic political processes, which further undermines democratic control of its content.

The Left is keen on international law despite it being influenced by nondemocratic and even totalitarian nations.

The UN universal declaration of human rights was watered down on requiring multi-party democracy and on the scope of the definition of genocide to accommodate Stalin’s many crimes in the name of socialism.

If you want to scratch a Leftist to find an economic nationalist, start talking about duties under international economic law.

A legal internationalist on the Left quickly become legal xenophobes when it suits them.

International economic law is adopted by mutual agreement bilaterally or multilaterally on a no vote, no veto basis such as at the WTO. Member countries sign the final agreements as they please. Any new rules have no effect until domestic parliaments ratify the agreement and amend local trade and investment laws.

The Left complains about any lack of transparency in international law and their implications for national sovereignty only when trade treaties are under discussion.

When it comes to international human rights  law or international environmental law, the most obscure or treaties ratified decades ago under different circumstances and often very limited purposes are holy writ.

These international laws  trump national sovereignty without question  and the will of the majority within a country and are open to the most free wheeling interpretations and private enforcement by busy bodies, do-gooders and activists with varying degrees of non-violence.

What is most disappointing about the Left and international law is their attempt to bully other countries over the tax rates.

If Sweden has the right to set high taxes, others have the equally sovereign right to set low taxes.

International law is not a cafeteria where you can pick what suits you. Just as there is international humanitarian law, there is international economic law. One in, all in?!

International economic law makes a far greater contribution to peace than any other part of international law. Free trade creates mutual dependencies among nations. Tariff walls do not promote peace.

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