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Lawless World: Is There An International Rule of Law?

 As part of Birzeit Legal Encounters, the Institute of Law (IoL) invited Professor Philippe Sands, Professor of International Law at the University College London. As an international practicing barrister, he has extensive experience litigating cases before the International Court of Justice, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, and the European Court of Justice. He frequently advises governments, international organisations, NGOs and the private sector on aspects of international law. Sands also testified before the United States House Judiciary Committee Hearing From the Department of Justice to Guantanamo Bay.
Dr. Ghassan Faramand, IoL Director, heartily welcomed and introduced Professor Sands. In light of a complex international situation, Dr. Faramand wondered how the Palestinians can use international law tools as to put an end to the Israeli occupation as well as its associated regime, including the Wall.
Having expressed his happiness to visit the Palestinian territory for the first time, Professor Sands confirmed that he would like to share opinions and viewpoints with participants in the legal encounter.
In reference of the rule of law in the international arena, Professor Sands made a brief note on his book Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules – From FDR's Atlantic Charter to George W. Bush's Illegal War. Sands accuses the US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair of conspiring to invade Iraq in violation of international law. In particular, Sands stresses that the US turned its back on the international rule of law. Sands also explained that international rule of law derives from three primary principles of the international law:
  1. Preventing the use of force to settle international conflicts;
  2. Promoting human dignity and right to self determination; and
  3. Economic and commercial freedom and promoting investment.

Professor Sands' went on to shed light on his follow-up book, titled Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, released on of May 2008. On December 2, 2002 the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, signed his name at the bottom of a document that listed eighteen techniques of interrogation - techniques that defied international definitions of torture. The Rumsfeld Memo authorized the controversial interrogation practices that later migrated to Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, as part of the policy of extraordinary rendition. These new techniques were effectively used on Saudi national and Detainee 63 at Guantanamo Bay, Mohammed Al Qahtani, who was alleged to be the 20th hijacker of aeroplanes that hit World Trade Tower in New York. According to Professor Sands, these harsh interrogation techniques constituted a war crime. A law should be in place to prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman treatment. Sands said that the US has bluntly defied fundamental human rights. 

Professor Sands added that he is still searching for the truth. He is suspicious of several international practices, and asks: What is the international law for? In fact, the purpose of his present lecture was to share standpoints and ideas on this question.

In the ensuing discussion, participants inquired how the international law can govern international relations. Others wondered how viewpoints held by western jurists on Arabs can be changed. In this context, Arab nationals themselves, however, deem that the international law to be unrealistic. A discussant also inquired how the role of international organisations, such the International Committee of the Red Cross, can be promoted. In addition, a participant stressed that the international law is part of the Palestinian problem. Living in a weak, transitional state, how can Palestinians obtain their rights under such an abnormal international situation?

Commenting on these remarks, Professor Sands explained that there is not a unified viewpoint or understanding of the international law. Every State adopts its own vision and interpretation of the law. Arab States are not an exception. In isolation from the international law, Arab countries have not been capable of helping Palestinians overcome current crises.

According to Professor Sands, the international law is part of the problem, not the solution thereof. Regarding questions as how can the weak benefit from the international law and how history has addressed this issue, Professor Sands asserted that he did not know what the best solution would be like.

The Legal Encounter was held in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.