In Law and Popular Culture

Even as I wrote about current events lately, my research on compliance theory is close to my mind. How or will China comply with the tribunal’s ruling? What does the Chilcot Inquiry tell us about how the UK tried to comply with international law? The cynics argue that China will ignore the ruling and that the Chilcot reports shows that lawyers will do what politicians tell them to do. Compliance theory can answer those cynics. Amongst compliance theorists there is disagreement as to how and why states comply. But they all start from the same premise, pointedly formulated by renowned scholar Louis Henkin.

Henkin and compliance

In the second edition of his book ’How Nations Behave’ (1979), American scholar Louis Henkin wrote these, now famous words:

“Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time.” 

It is one of my favorite quotes. Again, just as in Lotus, simple words convey a simple message about a fundamental issue. States comply with international law in the vast majority of cases. But unlike Lotus, Henin’s back up of his statement falls rather short. He vaguely points to the number of diplomatic exchanges, the very complexity of international relations, and the web of international obligations. Hard statistics or other empirical evidence is hard to find in his book. The allure of Henkin’s words remains strangely powerful however.

A foundation

Most compliance theorists make Henin’s adage the foundation on which to build their theories. This simple formulation of an unproven truth has stuck, in part because of its simplicity. Subsequently, compliance theories try to expand on the adage by filling the gap in Henkin’s book. Scholars from both international relations and international law seek to explain why Henkin was fundamentally right, and how international obligations should be crafted or managed. Is it reputation, complex monitoring systems, or (in)direct sanctions? Or, as the constructivist would have, identity?

A believer

And I am a believer too. Just by observing the world around, and by looking beyond the headline grabbing issues of war and peace. Compliance is everywhere and every day. Even in issues of war and peace, international law is much more complied with as many assume. If Chilcot tells us anything, it is how rigorous legal decision-making is. Moreover, the entire Iraq affair shows how prominent the legalities were before the war. And how they have come to bite politicians in the ass after the war. But if you look at the law of the sea, trade law, aviation law, even space law, you will see a great measure of compliance.

Teaching by quotes is possible. Because the choice for the simplest words is very often the most powerful.

I am always looking for more law quotes! Let me know through the comments below if you have one. Facebook or Twitter works too! 


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