Issues of law and ‘lawfare’ are recurrent features of foreign policy debates in the United States. On the side, are efforts by peace activists and others to condition the behavior of all states, and especially the United States, by reference to authoritative limits on national discretion as encoded in the UN Charter, a binding treaty.
In opposition to a law-oriented foreign policy for the United States are a variety of arguments that rely either directly or indirectly on a version of ‘American exceptionalism.’ Such arguments do not repudiate international law, but condition its applicability to American behavior and that of American allies, and insist on the implementation of international law in relation to the alleged unlawful conduct of adversaries (e.g. Russia involvement in eastern Ukraine)
On the other side of this discourse is the various forms of ‘lawfare’ as an instrumental use of law to achieve valued ends, positive or negative. In these roles international law can mobilize public opinion and government policy to support or oppose particular undertakings. In this limited sense it is appropriate to conceive of ‘lawfare’ as ‘soft power goepolitics’ or as a form of ‘asymmetric warfare’ waged by political actors deficient in hard power.
It was during the presidency of George W. Bush that the neocons decided that recourse to international law was a weapon of the weak that interfered with the grand strategy of the United States, especially in the Middle East. The terminology of lawfare was adopted by both advocates of reliance on international law as constraints on American (and Israeli) policy and by those who sought to denigrate invocations of international law as obstructive tactics that interfered with the protection of security in a post-9/11 world.
In reaction to the Goldstone Report (2009) there was launched a notorious ‘Lawfare Project’ that viewed reliance on international law within the UN setting in a manner highly critical of Israel was a new form of ‘asymmetric warfare’ that needed to be countered to avoid the delegitimizing of Israel as a democratic sovereign state. This kind of interpretation dominated a conference at Columbia Law School, featuring the participation of the Dean, David Schizer, that denounced the Goldstone Report and human rights NGOs and was organized by a coalition of pro-Israeli organizations.
I regard lawfare as the use of the rules and procedures of law more neutrally, as instrumental uses of law to achieve or block policy outcomes. My focus is on international law, but the same dynamics apply to internal uses of law. The website, ‘LAWFARE,’ affiliated with the Washington think tank, The Brookings Institution, and bolstered by the active participation of some Harvard Law School conservative faculty, uses lawfare in this neutral, instrumental way, although its government oriented biases dominates its commentary.
There is a problematic side to international law that reflects its crafting and evolution over the centuries. International law definitely was developed to rationalize the interests and projects of the dominant political actors in the West. International law proved useful in giving a legal cover to colonial rule, unequal and imposed treaties, and to stabilize the expropriation of the natural resources of countries in the global South. At the same time, counter-hegemonic efforts were made to give international law quite different impacts, especially in Latin American settings. The effort was to put forward international law doctrines to strengthen the sovereign rights of weaker countries, especially in the context of economic relations.
Beyond the law on the books, there are the ambiguities created by state practice, especially with regard to peace and security, given the absence of any central governing authority or legislative institution on a global level to pronounce upon disputes about interpretation or to agree upon changes in governing rules. As a result, many ‘violations’ of international law serve as ‘precedents’ for the establishment of new norms; power generates law, and its interpretation, whether or not it serves the cause of justice. Further, with the veto in the UN Security Council giving the permanent members, and also indirectly their friends, a ‘legal’ right of exception with respect to compliance with international law. Such an interface between power and law offers an additional reason to be skeptical about any present claims of a global rule of law.
Against this background, I find it clarifying to distinguish between positive and negative uses of lawfare. I identify positive uses to be efforts to insist that international law be upheld to the extent that it serves values of peace, justice, and human dignity, and that its guidelines and conceptions of right, be generally treated as authoritative in diplomatic arenas concerned with the peaceful resolution of conflicts or initiatives designed to implement international criminal law, including making use of procedures to impose accountability on leaders of sovereign states. In these positive uses, there is an overall compatibility between lawfare and the pursuit of justice, although to express this conclusion inevitably reflects subjective perceptions and outlook. Other commentators on international law can and do have different views on such matters.
I identify negative uses of lawfare to be efforts to denigrate reliance on the procedures and norms of international law in seeking to pursue rights or hold individuals accountable for violations of international criminal law. The neocons were clear about their refusal to bind the pursuit of American foreign policy goals by shows of respect for international law. Their visions of American grand strategy regarded it as naïve and unhelpful to introduce international law dimensions into policy debates about the use of force. In this vein, thinking mainly about uses of force in defiance of the UN Charter and international law, several prominent neocons, including Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, showed their contempt of international law as nothing more than ‘a weapon of the weak’ that should not be allowed to alter the behavior of the strong, and in effect, justify the disregard of such legal objections to hegemonic policies as mere tactics of the outgunned side in an asymmetric war.
By way of illustration, the exclusion of international law from the Oslo Framework for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict was clearly an effective instance of negative lawfare, denying for many years the Palestinians the benefit of claiming their rights by reference to international law. An example along the same lines were the punitive responses made by Israel and the United States to initiatives of the Palestinian Authority to seek statehood within the UN System and then on that basis to become a party to international treaties, including most controversially the Rome Treaty, which facilitates access to the International Criminal Court. The essence of this important example of negative lawfare centers on blocking, retaliating against, and denigrating attempts by political actors to make use of available procedures and legal norms to uphold their rights against those who rely on hard power to sustain oppressive structures. .
Lawfare can operate negatively or positively on any level of social interaction. When activists seek to encourage divestment of holding in companies doing business associated with seeking commercial gain from transactions or projects with unlawful Israeli settlements this is positive lawfare, with unlawfulness serving as an indicator of illegitimate behavior. When such initiatives are blocked by a legal technicality to frustrate efforts to encourage or demand divestment, invoking law becomes negative lawfare. This happened recently at the University of California at Davis. Interestingly, as in this divestment context, what is being called ‘law’ are organizational rules operative with a university setting, and not associated with legal rules generated by governmental institutions.
There is no way to simplify or generalize the role of law in human affairs. Its proper assessment depends on taking into account the structural circumstances (for instance, law as administered by Israel as the occupying power in the West Bank imposes unjust and coercive policies and practices) and on context (for instance, Palestinian reliance on their claims of right based on international law with respect to the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, status of Jerusalem, control of water). Legal discourse disputes these rights in a variety of ways. Palestinians invoke the authority of the UN General Assembly to vindicate their claims, while Israel claims the authority to put forward its own ideas about insisting that occupied Palestine is a territory of ‘disputed sovereignty’ and as such outside the domain of international humanitarian law.
As long as complex societies exist and actors have their own agendas and priorities, rules and procedures will be manipulated for the benefit of one or another actor. This inheres in social process. What has happened recently calls for further reflection. Law has been used as an instrument to seek justice and law has been used as a means to gain and secure positions of strategic advantage. ‘Lawfare’ merely makes this tug of war between those that want to invoke international law and those that believes it unduly burdens statecraft a more systematic reality.
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