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Why International Law is Important

It seems the lot of international lawyers to continually justify the efficacy of international law. When most people think of international law, they think of the law of war – jus ad bello and jus in bello. They think that if the world is always in conflict, and people do horrible things to each other during war, what is the point of international law?

Others reject international law as quaint, ill-equipped to deal with the realities of a new and dangerous world. They say “international law is so Twentieth Century!” When you point out the breadth of international law, and how the postal, civil aviation, global trade, commercial, banking and other systems that they take for granted are based on expectations set by international law, they dismiss it as unimportant – even as they drive off in their European cars, while talking into their Japanese phones, wearing clothes made in Latin America, and shoes made in Africa.

Or they point to global leaders who swear allegiance to international law and then inevitably bow to the pressures of international politics and national interests. It is hard to argue the relevance of international law when prisoners remain in Guantanamo, Iran continues on its path to nuclear weapons, and ethnic violence verging on genocide continues to erupt across the globe.

But while the roadblocks are many, so are our advances. This optimism was a major theme of the keynote address delivered by Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, at the opening of the March 5 symposium entitled A Critical Juncture: Human Rights & U.S. Standing in the World Under the Obama Administration, sponsored by The University of Iowa College of Law’s Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems Journal.

Nowak, who is also a professor of human rights at The University of

Vienna, will soon conclude his term as Special Rapporteur on Torture for the UN. As he recounted in his lecture, he has seen first-hand the horrible damage inflicted upon persons held in detention around the world. He acknowledged that the presence of torture demonstrates how much work still needs to be done. But he has also worked with governments that have honestly and transparently committed to change, and those successes illustrate the power and potential of the international commitment to end torture.

In the end, international law is like every field of law: it sets norms of behavior, and those norms are frequently violated. But as Professor Nowak reminds us, those states that do embrace international law help us all advance further down the road to positive international relations.

From the Desk of Associate Dean David is a page periodically updated to share thoughts on international and comparative law issues and programming at the College of Law. Next Page: I asked Manfred Nowak what students should do to prepare for a career in human rights.

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