SITEMAP
 
 

TIMELINES
 

The Enduring Importance of International Law
Despite the Violations of Its Norms



       Nonetheless, though international law was not always effective during the war, it played an important role in several contexts.  It served as the framework for the debate about the war and helped separate the good actors from the bad.  Nations do care that their governments are complying with international law (with the possible exception that in extreme circumstances, people will believe a course of action justified no matter what the law says about it).  However, to the German government and its people, the invasion of Belgium cannot fall into that exception, given the dozens of attempted justifications advanced on behalf of their actions.  Germany clearly wanted to escape the stigma of being in violation of international law, both in terms of the internal and external consequences that such a violation would present.  Moreover, many of the legal norms in place at the time were respected.  Most notably, France decided not to violate Belgian neutrality, even though it may have provided a considerable military advantage that could have dramatically changed the length of the war.  Other examples would certainly be found in a study of some of the issues not discussed in this paper. 

       Finally, despite the fact that international law did not prevent violations of legal norms, this did not mean that the law was useless, since no municipal law can prevent people from violating it, even with strong mechanisms for enforcement of the law.  Thus, many lawyers and politicians were not dissuaded from its potential and resolved to strengthen it through the further development of legal norms as well as the creation of sanctions for violations (including personal sanctions).  This trend, which began at the peace conference in Paris in 1919, has continued throughout the rest of the century to the present day.  But as Hitler, Hussein and Milosevic have all shown us, there is still no effective way to bind rogue leaders to the dictates of international law, and as long as there is no more sovereign power than the states themselves, international law will be forced to react to flagrant violations of its norms.  Nevertheless, though not 100% effective, international law plays an important role in society, and nations must work together to strengthen it, not scrap it altogether, when violations occur.

Back