Visiting speaker delivers UN talk on court legitimacy

Steven Heine, Junior News Editor

Carrie Booth Walling, associate professor of political science at Albion College, gave a presentation on Tuesday, Feb. 27, titled “The UN Security Council, the Justice Norm and the Politics of International Criminal Justice.” The talk was held in conjunction with Allegheny College’s Law and Policy short course.

The lecture focused on the functioning of the United Nations International Court of Justice, as well as problems facing the court.

Walling said the court recently expanded its legitimacy after it decided to pursue justice for atrocities committed in South Sudan, which  is not officially a member of the court. While no member of the court is required to cooperate, non-member nations choosing to cooperate can be seen as an encouraging sign.

However, Walling warned, the court’s actions should be interpreted with caution, as the referral resolution granted immunity to non-Sudanese actors. This exemption is thought to cover international peacekeepers, especially from the United States.

“A closer look at the language of the referral resolution raises questions about the council’s serious commitment to justice and accountability,” Walling said.

Walling said there was strong international support for the idea of prosecuting human rights abuses in a court of law. In reality, however, the five permanent United Nations Security Council members hold inordinate sway in determining which cases are taken up, a system Walling referred to as great power politics, according to Walling.

“Justice, in contrast, demands equality,” Walling said.

Walling said the situation was similar in regards to the justice norm, which is defined as the idea that states should be held responsible for both war and mass atrocity crimes. While states profess a strong commitment justice, actual enforcement is lacking.

“While countries demonstrate a strong rhetorical commitment to the justice norm, in practice the Security Council commitment is irregular and politically selective,” Walling said.

However, Walling said, there was reason for optimism. She cited the rhetorical strength of the justice norm as one reason why.

Walling said Russia has vetoed 14 resolutions focused on bringing justice to perpetrators of mass casualty violence in the Syrian civil war. The war, which has gone on for almost seven years, has left at least four million refugees and six million people displaced inside Syria itself.

“We can expect these numbers to be very hard to get right,” Walling said.

While Russia’s vetoes make it harder for the court to bring justice to those who commit war crimes in Syria, the vetoes do not mean that the court is useless, according to Walling.

“What is bad for the court is not necessarily bad for the justice norm,” Walling said.

Walling pointed out Russia’s explanation for the vetoes. The explanation centered on the justice norm being improperly applied, and not the content of the justice norm itself. These tests can serve to make the norm stronger, giving it more international legitimacy in future proceedings.

Walling said the United Nations General Assembly is working to improve the fairness of the court. For instance, France and Mexico have introduced a resolution, backed by 96 member states, that calls for the voluntary suspension of the Security Council veto in cases of mass atrocity crimes. Another idea would allow the court to directly petition the General Assembly, which sets the budget for the United Nations, for the money required to follow through on litigation.

Walling said in order to reform, the court had to work within the context of great power politics, instead of trying to fight it.

“It’s easier for a powerful state to violate a norm and get away with it than a weak state to violate a norm and get away with it,” Walling said.

Sydney Yahner, ’21, said she attended the talk because many of her professors recommended it.

“It was interesting to see some of the conversation that transpired that incorporated a lot of the concepts I learned throughout the year,” Yahner said.

Yahner also discussed what she learned from the talk.

“Probably that the UN Security Council isn’t doing their job, that there’s a lot of room for change, but it’s a matter of who’s willing to make that first step and why.” Yahner said.

For Leah Lewis, ’21, the talk was impactful enough to change her idea of what she wanted to do in the future.

“Before I came, I wanted to have a career in international law, but now I know that’s not something I want to do,” Lewis said.