The concept of ‘international community’ and the International Court of Justice
By Gleider I Hernández
Despite its constant invocation in doctrine, rhetoric and countless international documents, international lawyers still struggle with arriving at a well-defined understanding of the concept of an ‘international community’, whether in identifying the members that compose it, the values and norms that it represents, or the processes which underlie its functioning. The term could be reduced merely to ‘constructive abstraction’, or rhetorical flourish; yet a concept of international community that would be legally operative (create enforceable legal rights and obligations) would require reflection as to the nature of international law and whether it serves the interests of a constituted community.
There are two primary understandings of the concept of ‘international community’. The first that the concept is purely relational: a fully inter-State order, with only a law of co-existence that demands only such rules and norms such as to ensure the survival of members of that society. According to such a view, the members of international society are primarily, if not exclusively, sovereign States. No common interest can be distilled from such a form. The second understanding is not formal, but substantive: the international community would be said to share a number of common interests and fundamental values that the legal order would exist to safeguard. Made legally operative, and embracing a distinct extra-legal element, the claimed ‘promise of justice’ embodied therein would lead to actors and institutions within the system claiming the obligation to protect the community interest.I sought first to distil the essential differences between the two terms, as the latter understanding especially would empower international actors and institutions to enforce the community’s interest or ‘will’. In many respects, the very identification of the community’s interest is controversial, and as such has not always been specified or made clear in multilateral treaties. Hence, it has been left to judicial institutions, and primarily the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, to elucidate these difficult concepts and to uphold or reject claims based on community interest. What transpired from my research was very interesting. In most cases, the Court was very cautious not to defend an international common interest, instead reading such obligations through a prism of multilateral or bilateral treaty relations: in short, through the prism of consent.
I would like the highlight four cases in which the Court refused to recognise the substantive character of norms claimed to be fundamental to the international community, which we international lawyers call jus cogens (peremptory norms of general international law), and obligations erga omnes (obligations ‘owed to all’). The Court has rejected claims that States sought with respect to indirect injuries (ie not injuries to their territory or to their nationals) against other States in the name of the international community. It rejected, for example, the claims of Ethiopia and Liberia in South West Africa (1966) where they claimed against South Africa for its imposition of apartheid over Namibia in purported violation of the League Covenant and the United Nations Charter. The erga omnes claim was rejected, where the applicants were denied standing on the basis that they could not bring forward an actio popularis (an action brought by a member of the public in the name of public order).
It rejected those of Portugal in East Timor (1995), where that State claimed, on behalf of the people of East Timor, against Australia for treaties that it had signed with Indonesia on the maritime delimitation in the area. Although the Court did not formally declare that Portugal had no standing, it concluded that Indonesia was an indispensable third party to the dispute, and that without Indonesia’s consent, it could not possibly proceed to hear the merits.
The jus cogens or peremptory, non-derogable character of various human rights obligations has fared little better before the Court. In Armed Activities in the Congo (2006), the Democratic Republic of the Congo claimed against Rwanda for various serious human rights violations, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide. The Court, for the first time, actually recognised the concept. Yet even though it was willing to concede that the human rights violations could, if proven, constitute violations of jus cogens, it considered that it did not have consent over the dispute. Rwanda’s lack of consent was clear from its ‘reservations’ (unilateral statements tagged on to its ratification of treaties), through which it refused to consent to the Court’s jurisdiction. The Court upheld Rwanda’s lack of consent and declined to proceed to the merits.
Finally, in Jurisdictional Immunities of the State (2012), Germany claimed against Italy’s inaction against the Italian domestic courts, which were not recognising Germany’s immunity in respect of Nazi actions committed in Italy and against Italian nationals. Italy claimed that the jus cogens nature of the violations allowed its courts to ignore Germany’s immunity. However, the Court concluded that, whatever the jus cogens character of the violations committed by Nazi Germany, Germany’s immunity served as a procedural bar in the Italian courts, and Italy had thus violated Germany’s immunity by allowing the claims to go forward.
Taken as a whole, these cases demonstrate that the International Court continues to adhere to a restrictive vision of the international community. Without commenting on whether this is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ development, it is an important point to make in the light of claims in scholarship that we ought to be assigning greater law-making power to judicial institutions, in particular with respect to the safeguarding of fundamental human rights. The Court’s reluctance may be due to institutional self-preservation, as its jurisdiction remains dependent on the consent of States; but equally so, the Court’s caution may be due to the difficulties and lack of agreement as to the consequences entailed by an embrace of a nebulous community interest that remains yet to be elucidated. In a decentralised, highly indeterminate legal order like international law, perhaps the unwillingness to assume a centralised interpretative role for itself is a statement more on the nature of international law than any value judgment on the concept of ‘community’.
Dr Gleider I Hernández is Lecturer in Law at the University of Durham, where is he is also Deputy Director of the new Institute for Global Policy. Previously, he served as law clerk to Judges Bruno Simma and Peter Tomka at the International Court of Justice; he holds law degrees from McGill, Leiden, and Oxford universities. His research interests extend to all areas of public international law, and he is especially interested in the nature and function of the international legal system. His first monograph, The International Court of Justice and the Judicial Function, will be published by the Oxford University Press in early 2014. He is the author of “A Reluctant Guardian: The International Court of Justice and the Concept of ‘International Community’” in the British Yearbook of International Law, available to read for free for a limited time.
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