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July is the month for
accepting international law



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

July 21, 2006

LONDON - It is time overdue for the U.S. to hand back Guantánamo to Cuba, for Britain to hand back Gibraltar to Spain, for Spain to return its African enclaves to Morocco, for India to accept the Pakistan compromise on Kashmir and Russia to renounce its claim to the four southern Kuril islands. With a few step like this we could have a lot more peace and less threats of war, more trade, more economic growth, and we'd all be happier all round.

This month two countries in different continents have shown the way - Nigeria in Africa with its dispute with neighbouring Cameroon over ownership of the oil-rich Bakassi peninsular and Argentina over its neighbour Uruguay's decision to build two big pulp mills on the banks of the Uruguay river which divides them. Both countries decided to forgo hostilities, even war in Nigeria's case, and go to the International Court of Justice (the World Court) and accept whatever these judges in faraway, The Hague, decided.

Nigeria has been in de facto control of the Bakassi peninsular since colonial times. For decades, until oil was discovered, it was a non-issue, but the legality of the Nigeria-Cameroon border has long been unclear with different maps giving different stories. Five years ago tensions started to rise between a country that has too much oil and one that has too little. Neither side could afford a war but this didn't stop the minister of defence in Nigeria arguing to President Olusegun Obasanjo that Nigeria should prepare itself for military action. Obasanjo overruled him and decided to persuade their neighbour to seek arbitration at the World Court. Finally this month the ruling in favor of giving Bakassi to Cameroon is being implemented, not without opposition from within Nigeria. Strangely, human rights groups have been at the forefront of Nigerian protests, arguing that such a decision should have been discussed in parliament and not settled by presidential fiat.

For Uruguay the stakes were also high. The mill project is the country's largest industrial investment, representing about 10% of GNP. Uruguay, a country with few natural resources, has few alternative 'grand projects', but Argentina's objections to pollution of the river appeared at first sight to breach an international treaty governing the upkeep of the river. However, this month Uruguay appears to have convinced the judges that the project will not damage the environment. This is the first time that Latin American countries have gone to the World Court over an environmental dispute, but the case sets an important precedent for the many shared water disputes erupting all over the world.

There is a rarely told story of the history of the last war-torn century. The fact is that during that turbulent time states committed themselves to a far more just, humane and peaceable world than their rhetoric and practice often suggested. Dorothy Jones, in her carefully researched book, "Codes of Peace", argues that there is a 'hidden history' of the last century, "the record of un-noticed breakthroughs in treaty making when the great warrior states have adopted apparently minor stipulations that represent agreement to significant restraints on their sovereignty".

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The League of Nations rests in a perpetual historical cloud because of its failure to deal with Hitler. But it did resolve the question of the ownership of the Aaland Islands that nearly led to war between Sweden and Finland, deploying a three-man team of international lawyers. It also arbitrated disputes between Albania, Yugoslavia and Greece, Greece and Italy, Iraq and Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, and Colombia and Peru. Without the League of Nations' application of international law all these disputes could easily have flared into war.

Today we have the application of international law in disputes between nations available on demand from a full time World Court. Tragically, the only permanent Security Council member that recognises its authority without reservation is Britain. The U.S. refused in 1986 to accept its ruling over the illegal mining of Nicaragua's harbors and since then is only a half signed up member, refusing to accept its compulsory jurisdiction, although an American judge serves on its bench. It seems that it is smaller powers that are determined to give the court teeth by seeking its judgement, even though, as with Nigeria and Argentina, nationalist passions are just as difficult to deal with as elsewhere.

But if we are seriously interested in pre-empting war we need, to slightly misquote Churchill, "more law law and less war war". We could start by everyone agreeing the time has come to subject the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over their rightful border to the sober, detached consideration of the justices of the World Court and insisting that whatever they decide be implemented forthwith, with a UN-mandated NATO force to make it work and keep the peace.



Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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