Challenges to Keeping the Peace in International Law

(C) Kapok Tree Diplomacy. August 2010. All rights reserved. By Jeff DwigginsInternational-Law flags

Introduction – FREE CONTENT

The need for a “fundamental institutional arrangement not only to address questions of war and peace and human rights but to develop legal norms in other areas, such as labor, health, and communications,” has enticed the vast majority of states to consent at some level to a growing and complex body of rules and norms designed to serve state interests by securing and furthering a peaceful, prosperous and stable society (Dunoff et. al. 16). Today these norms permeate the mission and operations of numerous international institutions like the United Nations, providing peaceful dispute resolution tools in such diverse areas as trade, military operations and human rights.

While most states desire to live in peace with one another and follow the fundamental norms of international law, a few states and some increasingly dangerous non-state actors like Al- Qaeda prefer to do whatever they want. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, U.S. President Barack Obama added, “[the] old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats … wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states; have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos” (Obama 51).

This paper will examine what it means to “keep the peace” in an era of the globalization of world politics and unprecedented challenges and threats. The specific challenges to be addressed include nuclear proliferation, military conflict and terrorism, international trade and economic relations, diminishing natural resources, and humanitarian and human dignity issues. The paper will also examine whether existing international institutions and legal doctrines are likely to resolve the issue, and where are they likely to fall short?

The posts, views and opinions expressed in this post are completely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of the Navy (DON) or any of the Armed Forces.

Section One – Nuclear Proliferation

Nuclear weapons are able to do far more than disable enemy combatants. They can destroy entire cities and obliterate entire human populations with one powerful blast.  The international community has developed two important treaties, The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), to limit proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), encourage disarmament, and preserve peaceful usage of nuclear energy (Dunoff et. al. 532-533).  Although these treaties have substantial ratifications, their effectiveness is severely limited by holdouts and compliance issues.  

India, Pakistan and Israel are not parties to NPT or CTBT, raising questions about the treaties’ effectiveness (Dunoff et. al. 532). Moreover, North Korea withdrew from NPT in 2002, and the United States declined to ratify the CTBT (Dunoff et. al. 533). The U.S. State Department concluded in a 2003 NPT Noncompliance Report that “Iran is pursuing a program to develop nuclear weapons” (U.S. Department of State 2005). Additionally, ideologically motivated non-state actors like the Taliban and Al Qaeda, though potentially delayed by international legal barriers, are also a legitimate threat to acquire the wherewithal to launch a crude nuclear device and create massive levels of destruction in highly populated areas.

International law has not been able to eradicate nuclear weapons nor adequately enforce compliance with treaties governing their proliferation. The Heritage Foundation pointed out the compliance challenges by noting that the “new START verification regime is not sufficient to detect large-scale cheating by the Russian Federation. As past experience has shown, inadequate verification measures are likely to be exploited” (New START 2010). In addition to compliance issues, it will be difficult to convince states like Pakistan and India to voluntarily preserve the military advantage of nuclear states like China.

Section Two – Military Conflict and Terrorism

The use of force to resolve disputes has been addressed by widely accepted international norms within the United Nations (UN) Charter to settle international disputes peacefully (Art. 2.3) and refrain from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Art. 2.4) (UN Charter 1945). The UN Security Council has the authority to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace” (Art. 39) and decide upon military action “to restore international peace” (Art. 42), while it preserves “the inherent right of individual or collective self defense (Art. 51) (UN Charter 1945).

UN sanctions and resolutions taken in light of these articles worked relatively well in the circumstances surrounding the first Gulf War, but questions surfaced about the legal justification and proportional response of the mostly unilateral U.S. military actions in the second Gulf War (Dunoff et. al. 910-915). In Nicaragua v. United States, the ICJ ruled that “support given by the United States … [to] the contras … constitutes a clear breach of the principle of non-intervention” (Dunoff et. al. 922). International institutions like the ICJ must be mindful of the fact that while justice may be universally desired, the right to administer it requires the institution to take the side of the just and intervene in affairs like Darfur if necessary to preserve legitimacy.

Terrorism complicates the whole equation of the proper use of force even further. Terrorists do not announce their intentions to attack. Terrorism happens without warning and carries catastrophic potential if WMDs are involved. Preemptive self-defense seems legally justified and reasonable given these factors, but given the fact that multilateral responses to the global “war on terror” have also disrupted terror networks and scuttled planned attacks, international institutions and diplomacy must be given adequate leeway to keep the peace.

Section Three – International Trade and Economic Relations      

The international economic system has been the source of numerous financial crises around the world in part because of its global interconnectedness. The 2008 crisis is a good example as its effects were felt worldwide. Preventing global financial meltdowns certainly helps keep the peace, especially internally. Greece can attest to that. Moreover, in states where poverty is pervasive, armed conflict is not far behind. The multitude of poor African and Middle Eastern states illustrates this reality.

Institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), perhaps the most important regime in facilitating international trade, help create a cooperative atmosphere that favors bargaining and negotiating rather than manipulating and coercing. The WTO provides a dispute settlement process that helps overcome the problem of cheating and non-compliance in an anarchic system (Lamy 133). John Ikenberry adds, “Prosperous neighbors are the best neighbors” (61), but the international economic system has harmed some developing countries like South Korea by encouraging the premature and rapid liberalization of trade policies and capital flows (Choi 212).  While the international economic framework has often proven better at crisis management than crisis prevention, unsustainable debt levels by major powers like the U.S. and Europe may eventually overwhelm any institutional crisis management plan.

Section Four – Diminishing Natural Resources

The increasing scarcity of natural resources could easily result in local and regional violence and humanitarian disasters around the globe. William Finnegan illustrated this in his analysis of the Cochabamba, Bolivia “water wars” and declaring “by 2025, the demand for water around the world is expected to exceed supply by fifty-six per cent” (2002). In similar fashion, Michael Klare boldly asserts that the global output of oil could fall by as much as 60-70% of current output by 2030 (2008). Multilateral efforts to avoid such dire consequences have made strides.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has made adequate progress on conservation, fishing and mining issues, but division of the continental shelf for drilling rights remains the subject of intense debate as evidenced by the Caspian Sea situation (Dunoff et. al. 755-758). The Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigable Uses of International Watercourses and the Nile Basin Initiative are two examples where the international community has made a commitment to sustainable development (Dunoff et. al. 774-781), while “ozone treaties are one of international law’s important success stories” as measured by reduced CFC consumption (Dunoff et. al. 802).  As resources continue to diminish, this multilateral progress in international laws will be challenged by intense survivalist instincts.

Section Five – Holding States and Individuals Accountable for Human Dignity Violations

When NATO intervened in Kosovo to protect the population from ethnic cleansing, this marked the “emergence of a limited and conditional right of humanitarian intervention” (Dunoff et. al. 950). International tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda have worked admirably in bringing perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes of humanity to justice, while the ICJ has upheld the Geneva Conventions and human rights consistently (Dunoff et. al. 653). Unfortunately, the international community failed to have the same resolve in Darfur and Burma.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) now exists to help bring perpetrators of mass atrocities to justice across international borders if need be, yet “just four of the twelve individuals charged by the court have been arrested and transferred to its custody” (Feinstein and Lindberg 62).  Leslie Vinjamuri cites the risks of outsourcing justice as being “alienation of the local … accountability” and a “bifurcated system of global justice” where only weak states are subject to the international process (202). With regards to the ICJ, Eric Posner points out, “States frequently refuse to submit to its jurisdiction or comply with its judgments. It has not resolved any major international controversy between great powers” (2004).


The conceptual challenges of legitimacy, relevance and justice within international law are gradually being mitigated by evolving norms and credible institutions, though bargaining power still varies among strong and weak states. The pursuit of justice is often at odds with keeping the peace in the short-term. In cases where international law falls short, multilateral efforts at promoting complementarity and reinforcing the rule of law through sustainable peace efforts will depend upon preservation of sovereignty and the resolve and interests of the stronger states.

Works Cited

Choi, J. Y. (2009). Rethinking Economic Development and the Financial Crisis in South Korea and the State in an Era of Globalization. Journal of Third World Studies , 26 (2), 203-226. Web. Academic Search Premier. Retrieved from Norwich University Library.

Dunoff, J. L., Ratner, S. R., & Wippman, D. (2006). International Law: Norms, Actors, Process: A Problem-Oriented Approach (2nd ed.). New York, NY, USA: Aspen Publishers, Inc.

Feinstein, L., & Lindberg, T. (2009). Means to an End: U.S. Interest in the International Criminal Court. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Finnegan, W. (2002, April 8). Letter from Bolivia: Leasing the Rain. The New Yorker , 78 (7), p. Web. Academic Search Premier. Retrieved from Norwich University Library.

Ikenberry, J. G. (1999). Why Export Democracy? Wilson Quarterly , 23 (2), 56-65. Web. 18 Apr 2010. Academic Search Premier. Retrieved at Norwich University Library.

Klare, M. (2008, June 26). Foreign Policy in Focus. Web. Retrieved August 3, 2010, from End of the Petroleum Age?

Lamy, S. L. (2008). Contemporary Mainstream Approaches: Neo-realism and Neo-liberalism. In J. Baylis, S. Smith, & P. Owens (Eds.), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations (Fourth ed., pp. 126-137). New York: Oxford University Press.

New START Working Group . (2010, June 24). New START: Potemkin Village Verification. Web. Retrieved August 2, 2010, from The Heritage Foundation.

Obama, B. (December). Our Work Here on Earth – Address by the President, United States of America, Delivered in Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. (D. Murray, Ed.) Vital Speeches of the Day (February 2010), 50-53. Web. Academic Search Premier. Retrieved from Norwich University Library.

Posner, E. A. (2004, December). The Decline of the International Court of Justice. Retrieved July 24, 2010, from The Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection::

The United Nations. (1945, June 26). Charter of the United Nations. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Verification and Compliance. (2005, August 30). Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments. Retrieved August 2, 2010, from U.S. Department of State.

Vinjamuri, L. (2010). Deterrance, Democracy, and the Pursuit of Justice. Ethics & International Affairs , 24 (2), 191-211. Web. 24 Jul 2010. Academic Search Premier. Retrieved at Norwich University Library.


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