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International cooperation - does politics always get in the way?

Ian Hurd, Director of Northwestern’s University’s Center for International and Area Studies(screenshot)

Here's a wild question, especially at the time of a pandemic: Does international cooperation benefit everyone equally to advance the common good, or does politics inevitably get in the way? Usually it’s the latter, says Ian Hurd, Director of Northwestern’s University’s Center for International and Area Studies. He spoke at an International Law Colloquium webinar on Tuesday hosted by the Graduate Institute Geneva.

Why it matters International law is often viewed through rose-colored glasses as  uncontroversial, apolitical and universally beneficial. In fact, it sometimes forces countries to accept risky international treaties that are not in their best interest. New research may help countries decide if international law benefits them and whether they should accept and comply.

Key quote: «Law is a vessel for political goals», says Hurd.

Some background As the world grows more interconnected through globalization, countries must increasingly cooperate with each other, where international law defines the rules of the game. But international law is also designed, enforced and revised by sovereign states and their allies, so there can also be clear winners and losers.

Here’s a big issue with international law: Accountability

  • Currently, multilateral organizations like the United Nations enjoy total legal immunity. If something goes haywire, no one is accountable.

  • That’s what happened in 2010, when Nepali UN peacekeepers unwittingly brought Cholera to Haiti and sparked an epidemic, infecting nearly 7% of Haiti’s population and killing 8,500 people.

  • Haitians submitted petitions demanding compensation from the UN, but they reached a legal dead-end, and Haitian authorities fell silent because of the country’s reliance on multilateral cooperation.

  • The UN never paid Haiti compensation although its actions ran counter to the UN’s foundational principles articulated in its 1945 Charter.

«A cold shower» That’s what other senior faculty said about Hurd’s analysis - these included Nico Krisch, Cedric Dupont, and Gian Luca Burci, amongst others, from the Graduate Institute of Geneva.

But there’s room for a handful of improvements to strengthen Hurd’s thesis, part of a still-unpublished study: The case against international cooperation.

  • A clearer definition is needed for ‘international cooperation’.

  • Political agendas can be embedded within international law, but Hurd needs to provide further, clearer examples to sharpen his claims.

The bottom line Politics and international law are not separate affairs. Multilateralism can advance the common good. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, experts like Suerie Moon, co-director of the Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre, are convinced that it is the only possible approach. But we need to acknowledge that politics shapes international law, and recognize that law may not protect everyone equally. Safeguards are needed for accountability.

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