Earlier this week China lost a dispute over control of parts of the South China Sea. The Philippines filed suit in an international tribunal over violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Despite being a signatory of the agreement, China balked at its language when it came to parceling out disputed regions of the South China Sea. And (hypocritical) political figures in the U.S. and Britain pontificated on why the Chinese should heed the decision.
But here is the rub. How is this decision to be implemented? If there is no enforcement mechanism then the decision of the tribunal isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
But while the decision is legally binding, there is no mechanism for enforcing it, and China, which refused to participate in the tribunal’s proceedings, reiterated on Tuesday that it would not abide by it.
And that is the problem with international law. Sure, we can set up tribunals to rule on a variety of disputes around the world - but if all the winner gets is a piece of paper, what's the purpose?
Unless every country agrees to be governed by a particular mechanism and agrees to an enforcement protocol, the law doesn't mean a thing. The United Nations is not capable of enforcing the agreement and neither is any government.
In fact, no one wants an international body that's capable of enforcing international "law." What world leader in their right mind would cede national sovereignty over such issues? What world leader would voluntarily subject his own government to the various prohibitions that the U.N. has produced over the years? If such a body existed is there any reason to doubt that George W. Bush would have been charged with violating international law? Is there any reason to doubt that President Obama would soon join him in the dock?