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When major foreign policy disputes hit the headlines, international law is never very far away

Christian J. Tams, lead educator of the University of Glasgow’s free online course, ‘Right vs Might in international relations’ on FutureLearn, discusses the importance of international law in times of crisis.

Lady Justice

When major foreign policy disputes hit the headlines, international law is never very far away. In fact, in official statements, it often plays a surprisingly prominent role. A few weeks ago, during the initial stages of the Ukrainian crisis, CNN’s website opened with the headline ‘Obama condemns Russia’s violation of international law’. Not that much earlier, during another geopolitical crisis, Russia’s President Putin had taken the extraordinary step of authoring an editorial in the New York Times to warn against a US intervention in Syria – in which he argued ‘could throw the entire system of international law out of balance’.

These are just two examples, but they illustrate that appeals to international law are an important part of international diplomacy. Often, these appeals remain appeals only, and the law seems powerless to affect reality, (the Crimea is still Russian, let’s not forget). But international law shapes arguments and provides a frame of reference. Even where it does not control policy, it matters. This is the first premise for our new online course on ‘Right vs Might in International Relations’.

The second premise is this: while international law matters (at some level), discussions about international law can be quite frustrating.  Partly, this is the lawyers’ (aka: our) fault: all too often, expert debates are dominated by legal terminology, hardly accessible. And partly, there may be room for a more informed public debate: international law is one of those topics (like football) on which everyone tends to have firm – but not always informed – views.

The ‘Right vs Might‘ course proceeds from these two premises. As instructors, we feel that international law can provide guidance on major conflicts; that its voice needs to be heard, especially during major crises. To illustrate what this means in practice, we will discuss six important case studies – about drone strikes, counter-terrorism, piracy, chemical weapons, Guantanamo Bay and investment protection – and for each of them set out the applicable legal framework. Whether we have managed to avoid unnecessary technical jargon, will be for participants to judge; we have certainly tried. And, in all this, our aim has been to highlight the legal sides of some of the high-profile conflicts of recent years: Can states use drones against terrorists? Should international law protect foreign investors? Why does the US operate a military base in Guantanamo, in Cuba? And what can be done if a government uses chemical weapons against its citizens? etc

Needless to say, our course does not intend to solve these questions. But it introduces the legal framework surrounding these issues, and it hopefully allows us all to have an informed debate. So if you feel that international law might matter – or even if you feel it does not, but want to test your view – do sign up for the course: it addresses major conflicts that need to be discussed widely. We look forward to seeing you there!

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