We’re All Living in the Wild West Now

Our international laws and customs weren't set up for today's complex world. What can be done to ensure worldwide fair play?

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There are different leaders and different laws all over the world, but states still need to work together. That’s where international law comes in to set rules and customs for how they interact.

“I use the frame of international law as the basis for understanding how global actors cooperate with one another to regulate their behaviour,” says Sarah Mason-Case, PhD law student at the University of Toronto.

Lately, the list of global actors that are involved is expanding fast, making it more difficult to enforce fair play.

Mason-Case adds that the nature of international law “has changed over time, especially in the 20th century after the Second World War with the growing use of international organizations such as the United Nations system for collective decision making to try to make global policy for peace and security, for human flourishing, and so on. International law, we might say, is created now between corporate actors. There are private and public relationships that are being created through international law.”

This leads to new complexity and unique challenges in how global actors interact. It used to be that individual states formed bilateral relationships with each other, but in truth, almost anyone can now be behind an attack on another state.

“One thing that preoccupies me is this particular juncture at which we find ourselves, where there seems to be the rule of law and law under siege in ways that seemed sort of unimaginable maybe even five or ten years ago,” says Jutta Brunnée, professor of law at the University of Toronto.

“And so what I’m interested in is understanding what makes law resilient in the face of these challenges, and what makes it fragile.”

In today’s world, it’s getting harder to define what constitutes a break in international law. There are new threats to global order, and they aren’t covered by traditional rules.

“For example, you think there are rules on what constitutes an attack on the state that is entitled to defend itself by force, and now it turns out we don’t have to use a weapon to attack another state. We could plant a computer virus.” says Brunnée.

“How does that get absorbed into that traditional rule system? Is that possible? In part because the actors that are now capable of doing things that only states used to be able to do, it could be anyone almost, with certain means and certain technologies.”

The traditional rules of international law were created for a different world. Not having a robust set of rules makes it hard to respond to modern attacks on other states, and that should set off alarm bells for us all. Keeping pace with technology won’t be easy, but it’s a challenge that we need to confront to ensure global security.

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Jutta Brunnée is Professor of Law and Metcalf Chair in Environmental Law, University of Toronto, where she previously served as Associate Dean of Law, Graduate (2010-2014) and Interim Dean (2014).

She has published extensively in the areas of public international law, international environmental law and international legal theory. She is co-author of International Climate Change Law (OUP 2017), which was awarded the American Society of International Law’s 2018 Certificate of Merit “in a specialized area of international law” and was recently translated into Korean, and of Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: An Interactional Account (CUP 2010), which was awarded the American Society of International Law’s 2011 Certificate of Merit “for preeminent contribution to creative scholarship.”

In 1998-99, Brunnée was the “Scholar-in-Residence” in the Legal Bureau of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, advising, inter alia, on matters under the Biodiversity and Climate Change Conventions. She served on the Board of Editors of the American Journal of International Law (2006-2016) and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2013, and Associate of the Institut de Droit International in 2017. In January 2019, Brunnée delivered a course on “Procedure and Substance in International Environmental Law” at the Hague Academy of International Law.

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