Is International Law Truly International?

Does international law really mean international? It seems that to the lay person when one hears international law or international tribunal, they automatically think of one of two events: the Rwanda genocide or the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. And while these have been two of the most publicized and terrible cases to come under the banner of international law in the recent decades, some are criticizing that international law is taking unfair aim at Africa and Eastern Europe. This seems to be because many of the judgeships are dominated by Western European judges.

Judge Abdul Gadire Koroma, former judge on the International Court of Justice and from Sierra Leone, recently spoke to a group in Dubai at the Modern International Study Institute. His criticisms stem from the fact that most international lawyers are European and thus interpret laws based on their regional backgrounds. He is calling for more international lawyers from different backgrounds. He states, “for international law to be truly international, people from different regional backgrounds should be practising it to bring their own perspectives to it.” He has a valid point. For international law to have any legitimacy, its practitioners must come from varied backgrounds to bring their qualities to the profession. Also, the seats of the international tribunals sit in Western Europe. This should change as well to embrace the inclusion that international law should promote.  It makes sense to promote international law in every nation, especially as it is going to be of vital importance as time goes on and national boundaries “disappear”.

I believe Judge Koroma goes too far, however, when he states that international laws should take into consideration legal traditions and cultures from around the world. It is one thing for a non-European attorney to bring his cultural background within the realm of international law and widen the focus of lawsuits and complaints to target crimes from around the globe. It is another for international bodies to look to different cultures and embrace their cultural norms. For example, stoning is still a valid punishment is certain nations. Others still punish adulterers, homosexuals,  and minority groups for nothing more than who they are. Should international law adopt these cultures traditions? Absolutely not.

As a law school promoting international law, what do you think of Judge Koroma’s comments?

Source: The National

Photo Source: TFHLH Legal


  1. When I hear the term “international law,” the first thought that pops in my head is neither the Rwandan genocide, nor Slobodan Milosevic. The first thought that pops in my head is the great men and women of Pace Law School’s International Law Review and their tireless efforts to advance and promote the study and practice of international law. That being said, I agree that lawyers practicing in the international legal field should have wide ranging and diverse backgrounds. As judge Koroma points out, diversity in the field allows for the incorporation of multiple perspectives which can lend themselves to fair and perhaps creative interpretations of law in order to settle international disputes quickly and justly. Any problems that may present themselves by including legal traditions from radical cultures that punish for “crimes” that many countries do not consider wrong, may be tempered by the proponents of traditions from more moderate cultures. In conclusion, I would like to thank Mr. Paliotta for including a working link to his source’s website. It was very helpful to review the article before commenting. Nice work, sir.

  2. I’m a bit confused after reading this post. First, what exactly does international law, within the context of this post, mean? That’s a rather broad brush to paint with. If I said “American Law” to someone they might interpret that as meaning criminal law while someone else might interpret it as business or corporate law. having re-read the post, and seeing the references to the International Court of Justice and the various tribunals which investigated Rowanda and the Serbian/Croatian conflict, I’m assuming that we are talking about International Criminal Law.

    The issue with international criminal law is that one country’s values may be totally different from another’s–a point alluded to in this post. This was a problem that the drafter’s of the Rome Statute dealt with; particularly because the Rome Statute is treaty based. Regardless of the moral grounds for becoming a signatory to a series of international criminal laws, like the Rome Statute, those very rules may be contradictory with the international policy of a nation. The United States, for example, is not a party to the Rome Statute.

    I’m also not sure how international law comes down on Africa and Eastern Europe unfairly. Clearly, those parts of the world have been hotbeds for international criminal law violations. While it is arguable that acts by European or Western powers could fall within the umbrella of international criminal law, are we to let genocide and war crimes, both jus cogens (peremptory norms), go unpunished? Will people complain when the International Criminal Court and the United Nations begin to come down hard on Syria and other parts of the Arab world that routinely commit jus cogens violations?

  3. Andrew’s post is quite interesting and reminded me of recent criticisms by members of the African Union alleging that the International Criminal Court has been selective in its prosecution of Africans. This situation is difficult in that the court does not want to legitimize selective prosecution, but it also does not want to ignore the fact that many jus cogens offenses are committed in Africa. I feel that the Prosecutor of the ICC should prosecute wherever it is necessary, and if that tends to be on one continent more than anywhere else, so be it. From 2003 up until this year, Luis Moreno Ocampo of Argentina was the Prosecutor for the ICC. Starting this year, as of June, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia is now the Prosecutor. I wonder if ICC prosecutions in Africa will decrease or increase now with an African Prosecutor and what the response will be from the members of the African Union. Time will tell. Lastly, I agree with Andrew and Joe in that it is vital for lawyers practicing in the varying fields of international law to come from diverse backgrounds so that different perspectives of the international community are represented and so that international law can be truly international.

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