Nobel nominee expresses necessity of ethical international law

Breanne Gilpatrick

International law must strive to be both practical and ethical, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee told a group of about 50 Northwestern students and community members Tuesday.

Cherif Bassiouni, now a professor at DePaul University, spoke in Harris Hall about the work to establish an international court in a speech titled “The Struggle Between Realpolitik and Justice: The Values of Ethics in International Law and Relations.” NU’s Center for International and Comparative Studies hosted the event.

Bassiouni is the president of DePaul’s International Human Rights Law Institute as well as the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences in Siracusa, Italy, and the International Association of Penal Law in Paris. In 1999, Bassiouni was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work with the International Criminal Court.

The center invited Bassiouni as a Winter Quarter speaker because of his record for doing work that affects both academic and legal communities, said CICS Director Andrew Wachtel. At a time when international ethicists are debating war trials in Iraq, Wachtel said, Bassiouni’s work on human rights in international law is particularly relevant.

“We hope people will realize that this is an important issue they need to grapple with,” Wachtel said.

In his speech, Bassiouni said most people have an innate sense of justice. But, he added, institutions such as an International Criminal Court help put those senses into practice.

“In a sense,” Bassiouni said, “international criminal justice and international criminal law are the swords for the protection of human rights.”

Unfortunately, Bassiouni said, international law is an arena where economic and political interests often prevail. As a result of the politics in international law, Bassiouni said he faced repeated delays to receive offices, field workers or money to do his work when he was a chairman of a United Nations committee investigating human rights violations.

“The basic rule (within international relations) was that of impunity,” Bassiouni said. “There was no accountability.”

Bassiouni said he believes international law is crucial to stopping violence and ensuring peace. Despite international bureaucracy, international policy can be effective once organizations reconcile their political interests with the practical concerns — known as “realpolitik” — and ethical concerns of justice.

“I still am convinced that there is no conflict between peace and justice,” Bassiouni said. “I would believe something further, that there is no peace without justice.”

Although Bassiouni said he thinks his conclusion might be the “young optimist” in him, Education junior Olajumoke Warritay said she appreciated his positive outlook.

“I think the more people learn about trauma, violence and evil the more people lose their idealism,” said Warritay, an Education junior. “He seems to have held on to it.”

Warritay said she heard about Bassiouni’s speech on the international studies listserv and said she wanted to attend because of the relevance of international law is to her home country of Sierra Leone.

Others students said they felt Bassiouni’s positions ignored the realities of global politics.

“I’m a little bit cynical,” said Yuanxia Ding, a Weinberg senior. “It’s great goal, but it’s not possible given American hegemony.”

Whether students agreed or disagreed on Bassiouni’s outlook, Bassiouni said international law remains important to society.

“People need to know the truth,” he said. “People need to know that justice has been made and then they can reach closure.”