Disputes concerning the limitations of rights between sovereign countries fall under international law or law that is not bound by a country’s borders. The notion that international law has certain limitations has recently been an integral part of legal discourse. The constantly changing landscape of international politics has had a huge impact on the functioning and enforcement of international law throughout the world.
Powerful states can be presumed to be those states which have created hegemony by dominance over international economy, international politics as well as international law which enable them to be exempted from certain provisions of international law. We have seen that how US under the Bush administration announced on 11th May, 2002 that the US does not intend to become a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Treaty which meant that the US can never be prosecuted for any of its unlawful activities around the globe. The US has refused to join a host of critical international treaties ranging from the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to the 1998 International Criminal Court Statute. Even its National Security Agency’s surveillance policy mocks international law. Since the inception of the ICJ in 1946, the United States has been named as a respondent in 13 cases, and almost all of them have been set aside due to the US claiming jurisdictional issues, except for one i.e. Nicaragua vs US. The US was found guilty of funding the Contra rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and also planted naval mines in Nicaragua’s territorial waters which were considered to be a gross breach of its sovereignty as well as international law. In response, the US withdrew its broad support of the ICJ and as a permanent member of the UNSC, vetoed any attempt enforcing the ICJ’s judgment. Nicaragua has since then received no compensation even to this day.
The new developments are actually a geopolitical windfall for another power that serves as a prime example of a unilateralist approach to international law – China. China rejects some of the same treaties the US has declined to join, including the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which lays down rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes and aquifers. China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled in the world by annexing the starting places of Asia’s major international rivers – the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang. China also has an appalling human rights record, where opposition to the Communist Party is heavily punished, the press faces serious censorship and minorities are thought to be as an impurity to the Confucius thought and so are destined to be wiped out if it does not adhere to the dominant Confucius thought.
It is extremely difficult to reconcile international law with political dominance because dominant states appear to be reluctant to abide by the rules of international law; they seem to consider it as overly constraining, and turn to politics instead. In some areas, powerful states tend to use international law as a means of regulation as well as of pacification and stabilisation of their dominance; however in other areas, faced with the hurdles of equality and stability that international law erects, they withdraw from it. This consequentially leads one to wonder that while power has been thought(and also above) to shape international law, it can also be argued on the contrary that international law itself has become a source of power for developing states. This occurs as developing states use international law as a means to affect regional change. Developing states’ reliance on international law, particularly as they form coherent foreign policy against a counter-colonial background, strengthens international law as a process by which developing states express their interests.
States with powerful friends are also major players in the global community because of their close relation with hegemons who shape international law and relations. The top of the list is Israel who has enjoyed the tacit support and approval for its actions in the Middle East. It is illegal under international law to acquire land by force. Israel annexed land occupied by force in 1948 and 1967 and is taking natural resources such as water and minerals from that land for its own use and economic benefit (U.N. Charter, Article 2(4) & 51; Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations, Principle 1). Practicing ethnic cleansing is illegal, but Israel has taken Palestinian land and forced many hundreds of thousands off their land while preventing any of the displaced people the right to return. Forbidding civilian populations the right to return to their homes following the end of armed conflict is in direct violation of international law and UN resolutions. Israel has a formal system of legalized discrimination against Palestinians which fits the official UN definition of Apartheid which is considered to be a crime against humanity. The law violated is the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1976). In 1980 Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem as Israel’s “complete and united” capital. UNSC Resolution 478 declares the annexation “a violation of international law” which is “null and void and must be rescinded.” UNSC Resolution 497 similarly states that Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights in also illegal. Despite of these resolutions, the occupation of the majority of Palestine by Israeli forces continues till this day.
Given the innately self-calculating and self-aggrandising human nature, strong nations have always sought to gain dominance over the weak. New technologies and reduced transport costs have made the world increasingly interdependent and generated many new treaties and rules. Yet the more the world has changed, the more it has remained the same in one aspect – the strong still dominate the weak. International law is made by states; powerful states have a disproportionate role in shaping it and as is clearly evident from the discourse above, the major powers assert one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other states, as if international law were only for the weak.