Alter Book Symposium: Welcome to the New World of Comparative International Courts

by Roger Alford

Let me join others in heaping praise on Karen Alter’s new book. It marks a growing trend of studying international law from an institutional rather than substantive perspective. My favorite aspect of the book is the lateral thinking that occurs when one examines international tribunals across disciplines. International law scholars typically labor in their own vineyards, missing opportunities for grafting new vines onto old roots. Alter steps back and examines world history from the perspective of new international courts and tribunals. It is a welcome addition.

Her book is a voice for the younger generation, who did not grow up studying international law “during the Cold War when power politics mattered more than law, and when most international legal institutions were virtual entities that barely met and rarely said anything of political or legal consequence.” (p. xix). A younger generation of scholars embraces the cornucopia of international tribunals in all their variety, and will soon treat international dispute resolution as a separate and distinct transubstantive body of international law. We are moving in that direction with the development of the emerging field of global administrative law. But future decades will witness a greater emphasis on procedural rather than substantive international law, and comparative international courts will be a new specialty. Today it is rare to take a course entitled “International Courts and Tribunals.” Today we do not compare across international courts questions such as jurisdiction, standing, evidence, judicial selection, remedies, and enforcement of judgments. Future generations will. The New Terrain of International Law is a major contribution in that direction.

Of course, there are problems with Alter’s book. Her choice of tribunals borrows from the Project on International Courts and Tribunals’ typology, which excludes international tribunals that are not permanent. She concedes that excluding temporary international tribunals is rather arbitrary, (p. 76), but nonetheless limits her typology to only twenty-four permanent international tribunals. Given the magnitude of the task set before her, this is understandable. But I fear that her work will continue an ill-advised trend of excluding tribunals that are not permanent. Rather than including permanency as a threshold requirement, it is far preferable to address it as a variable, similar to geographic reach or private initiation of disputes. Many temporary international courts are simply too important to ignore. Just as any historical analysis would never exclude the temporary tribunals such as the Jay Commission, the Alabama Commission, the PCIJ, or the Nuremberg or Tokyo Tribunals, one should never claim that a comprehensive study of modern courts and tribunals is complete without including tribunals such as the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal, the United Nations Compensation Commission, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission, or the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Excluding such tribunals, but then including other temporary tribunals (the ICTY and the ICTR) as well as relatively insignificant permanent tribunals such as ECCIS, EFTAC, and WAEMU only underscores the arbitrary nature of PICT’s and Alter’s typology. Even her case studies belie the problem, for she studies several of the temporary tribunals in her case studies, but then she does not include those same tribunals in her typology.

As an expert on international investment arbitration, let me also address another fundamental mistake in the book. Alter identifies ICSID arbitral bodies as administrative tribunals. She justifies this because the “investor dispute system can give rise to costly litigation and awards, to the point that litigation threats by investors can have a chilling effect on the local regulatory politics.” (p. 202). She suggests that ICSID tribunals function in a “morphed and perhaps unintended administrative review role.” (p. 211). All of this is correct, but it is purely incidental. At their core investment tribunals are focused on the economic consequences of state action. In reality, ICSID tribunals function as international economic courts akin to the WTO. Like other international economic courts, the subject matter of investment arbitration is limited to economic issues such as trade, foreign investment regulation, contract disputes, intellectual property rights, and business law (p. 85). The basic template of an ICSID tribunal is distinct from both the WTO and ECJ models discussed in the book (p. 90), allowing private initiation of disputes before supranational courts without a preliminary ruling mechanism. But an ICSID tribunal is no more of an administrative review court than the ECJ or the WTO, which as she notes, also function as systems of administrative and constitutional review challenging community acts in front of supranational courts (p. 90). In my view it is better to categorize international tribunals based on their core objectives rather than their incidental effects.

Karen Alter deserves hearty congratulations for her excellent work. If you read the book, you will be introduced to an increasingly important field of international law. You will be ushered into the new world of comparative international courts.

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  1. […] this reply I focus on Nico Krisch’s challenge to my role-based heuristic. On Opinio Juris, Roger Alford  also questions this judicial role heuristic. Their comments raise two rather different critiques. […]