Shanks offers insight into international law theories

War crimes, soldiers’ codes of conduct and the appropriate applications of force were addressed in a lecture by Cheryl Shanks, associate professor of political science, to administrative staff at the Faculty Club on Monday. Shanks, who teaches a course on international law and centers her research on policies that create and maintain sovereignty, spoke as part of a lecture series for members of the administrative staff.

According to Shanks, the concept of international law is unlike domestic law since it exists in a system of sovereign powers, free to act as they choose. “International law is like marriage – no one can be coerced into signing a treaty,” Shanks said. She distilled various aspects of the international legal system into six specific groups: laws addressing war crimes and the rules of war, the definition of self, acceptable justification for the use of force, treatment of civilians during war, the classification of weapons acceptable for use in war, defining the decision-making process of international organizations like the United Nations (UN) and the application of the legal ultimatum by powerful nations.

A continuing theme in Shanks’ remarks was the general fluidity of the international system of interactions and the need for consensus in formulating laws to define various aspects of the international system.

First, Shanks spoke about the roots and necessity for codes of conduct during wartime. Historically, since killing was socially unacceptable, soldiers needed a definition of how and when killing is tolerable and thus were often told “that even though it’s okay to use force, they have to use the minimum amount to achieve their goal.” Furthermore, since the Geneva Convention, the treatment of individual soldiers has become more important. Shanks addressed the necessity of respecting the changing roles of soldiers, for example, soldiers who surrender their weapons must be treated with respect and given medical treatment if needed. To that end, Shanks discussed the ramifications of the International Red Cross, an apolitical, neutral organization aimed at promoting humanitarian principles and values, disaster response, disaster preparedness and health and care in the community. “The Red Cross has been accused of perpetuating war,” she said. “They’ve also been accused of applying neutrality in a wrongheaded manner.”

Next, Shanks discussed how the creation of the UN has created a standard by which to define legal war. According to the UN charter, self-defense is the only acceptable instance in which force may be applied. “For the first time, there’s a group that is authorized to apply force,” Shanks said. The reason why the standard for legal war is so high is because the highest value in the international system is sovereignty. In prioritizing sovereignty, a nation gives up authority over anyone else’s territory, but in return is allowed by the rest of the world to exercise absolute authority over its own possessions.

However, Shanks addressed an issue implicit in the definition sovereignty that arose after World War II. When assembling the war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg to prosecute members of the Nazi regime, the Allies found that if absolute sovereignty was legal, then those involved in carrying out the Holocaust could not be legally tried by the court. As such, sovereignty is no longer the highest law; respect for the individual has to be given precedence over the state.

Shanks also linked an increased emphasis on the respect for human life to the regulation of weapons. Explosive weapons, including both conventional and nuclear ordnance, are acceptable for use in wars, but biological and chemical weapons are not, since they do not discriminate between combatants or noncombatants. Nuclear weapons are classified simply as weapons with greater power than conventional bombs since they can be specifically aimed, whereas biological or chemical weapons expose an innumerable population to their destructive capabilities.

In order to facilitate decision making on an international level, several procedures were worked into the mechanics of the UN. The most powerful is the UN Security Council, which has five permanent members endowed with veto powers. In order for the Security Council to act in a manner that does not threaten international peace and security, the five members must unanimously agree. According to this system, actions in the UN must follow procedure in making a decision, regardless of the emotional or moral arguments for a specific course of action.

Finally, Shanks spoke about the use of the legal ultimatum by the world’s most powerful nations. “It’s a statement by the big power – people listen,” she said. She provided a current example of the council’s operation by discussing Resolution 1441, which the Bush administration used as justification for invading Iraq. “In diplomatic language, it was as vicious as it can be,” she said. Portions of the resolution spoke about “serious consequences” in response to Iraq’s failure to comply with the UN’s disarmament order, which in diplomatic parlance suggests that military action would be used. Shanks said that France and Germany’s refusal to sanction force in Iraq was inconsistent with the resolution they had previously signed. Thus, she said, they had crippled the ability of the UN to effectively apply its legal ultimatum powers.

According to Jo Procter, news director at the Office of Public Affairs, the lecture series began four years ago in response to suggestions that administrative staff felt disconnected from the research being carried out by professors at the College.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *