Thanks for the Conversation, OJ

by Deborah Pearlstein

When Peter Spiro wrote to ask me back in 2007 whether I might be interested in writing a response to then-State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger’s posts on the blog, Opinio Juris, I had two nearly simultaneous reactions: (1) The U.S. State Department Legal Adviser was writing on a blog?!; and (2) Yes.

I am, as I take it Duncan once was, a pathetically late adopter of new technologies – gadgets and forms of communication alike. Blame it I suppose on being the offspring of a physicist father and journalist mother, but peer-reviewed scholarship and old fashioned investigative reporting were – still are for me – the standard bearing pillars of thought and current events. How I now find myself writing scholarship for a field still substantially without peer reviewed journals is perhaps best left for another discussion. How I find myself writing on a blog is easier to explain: it’s where a conversation we all needed to have about law and security in the new world was happening.

That the conversation was happening on a blog primarily about international law admittedly gave me some cause for hesitation when Chris asked me to become a regular contributor the following year. I had gone to law school to study civil rights and U.S. constitutional law. True, I had studied some international law, with the lovely Detlev Vagts, who we lost not too long ago. But the subject seemed to involve far more about ancient maritime incidents than suited my taste. Yes, there were (even then) human rights treaties on the books. But they seemed to me then of little instrumental value to one aiming to tackle injustice (an immodest aspiration) here in the United States.

I was just past clerking when September 11 happened, and not far into practice when it became clear the United States’ response to those attacks would be the most important thing to happen to constitutional law in my lifetime. It soon became equally clear that pulling out my old international law books, and mastering all I hadn’t gotten the first time around and more, would be a necessity if I hoped to grapple seriously with the rights impact of U.S. uses of force, detention, interrogation, trial, and more. The law of armed conflict quickly became a central area of professional focus for me, as my practice shifted from an excess of pro bono constitutional law cases to full time work for a human rights NGO.

Yet even in the midst of that practice, it still seemed presumptuous to consider myself part of the field of international law, a field that I fear still carries more than its share of barriers to entry for law students, lawyers and non-international law faculty alike. Too many of the “real” international lawyers and scholars I knew had a bad habit of assuming vast amounts of background knowledge, and of using field-specific jargon of the worst, Latinate kind. Too few made careful enough distinctions between the law that is binding and law that is hortatory. Between the law as it is and the law as we might wish it to be. There was a lot of underbrush to sort through.

Not that there wasn’t blame to go around; there was deep ignorance of international law even among folks who should know better. International relations theorists who didn’t recognize a distinction between their criticisms of particular international institutions and the substance of international law. Law professors who had never contemplated any difference between comparative law and international law. A leading political scientist who, on hearing that I taught both constitutional law and international law, expressed amazement at teaching in such “opposite” fields – the one being hard core LAW-law, the other being (something like) a Hogwarts text on witchcraft and wizardry. And far too many American policymakers who think “international” law means someone else’s law, rather than (as is often the case) commitments we ourselves agreed to undertake.

Of all the terrible effects of 9/11 and the U.S. response to it, I like to think one of the few beneficial effects – certainly among the most ironic – is that it has brought far greater awareness of international law to a new generation of students, practitioners and scholars. My strong sense – someone should do a less impressionistic survey – is that courses in U.S. law schools in relevant areas of international law, including the law of armed conflict and human rights law, have proliferated in recent years. Federal cases in those fields certainly have, along with federal judges’ exposure to them. And that has made a forum like OJ more in demand, and more essential to the discussion, than ever.

I can’t quite say everyone’s talking about international law now. But I probably need to start admitting that at least on occasion, I am. Thanks to OJ – and all of you – for the great conversation.

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/01/15/thanks-conversation-oj/

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