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Jose Alvarez Charges ASIL Members to Think Critically About International Law

In President's Address, Jose Alvarez Charges ASIL Members
To Think Critically About International Law
 
NEW YORK (April 12, 2007) -- In his presidential address to the American Society of International Law (ASIL), Professor José Alvarez urged attendees to reflect critically on the role of international organizations in global regulation. International law in its current state is not a panacea to the world’s ills; it must be carefully redesigned to address today’s threats, Prof. Alvarez cautioned delegates at the 101st meeting of the ASIL.
 
Lori Damrosch, editor of ASIL’s American Journal of International Law and the Henry L. Moses Professor of International Law and Organization, also spoke at the meeting, as a participant on a plenary panel on the future of international law.
 
The March 2007 meeting challenged scholars and practitioners to consider the shifting stakes of international order. Discussions addressed the trends of growing economic disparity, environmental degradation, and weapons proliferation, and the responsibilities of international lawyers in this ever-changing landscape.
 
Prof. Alvarez, the Hamilton Fish Professor of International Law and Diplomacy, asked the audience of international lawyers and scholars to avoid self-congratulation and to acknowledge the shortcomings of their field. To illustrate his point, he distributed a handout titled “International Law: 50 Ways It Harms Our Lives” – a response to “International Law: 100 Ways It Shapes Our Lives,” the booklet released by the ASIL last year.
 
“International law does more good than harm,” Prof. Alvarez stated as his premise, but the “50 Ways” handout is “a reminder, in our 101st year, of the need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on…achieving the ‘Just World Under Law’” – referring to the theme of the 2006 meeting.
 
Harms of international law Prof. Alvarez lists in the “50 Ways” include “encouraging global warming”, the result of relying on the Kyoto Protocol – a single, ineffectual treaty not ratified by some of the major environmental offenders – instead of other protocols and regulatory approaches that could more effectively reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
 
Other harms include ways that international law fails to stop terrorism. For example, the fight against terrorism must rely on a confusing mix of 15 different conventions with different signatory states and archaic language. In addition, international legal standards that respect “territorial integrity” thwart the pursuit of terrorists across borders, as well as the use of other states’ intelligence services. Finally, international law needs to meet “the legitimate expectations of the world’s peoples” that their governments will be able to protect them from devastating attacks by non-state actors. Prof. Alvarez’s speech called on international law to create new avenues to pursue security through rules that are subject to reciprocity so that states do not resort to one-sided actions.
 
“We have undermined our efforts to counter terrorism because we have dismissed existing law without trying to adapt it,” Prof. Alvarez stated. 
     
Widely considered the most important annual gathering in the area of international law, ASIL’s annual meeting brings more than 1,000 practitioners, academics, and students to Washington, D.C., each spring to debate and discuss the latest developments in their field.
 
Profs. Alvarez and Damrosch join a long line of Columbians who have shaped the ASIL since its inception in 1906 and, in turn, the practice of international law and diplomacy. Columbia Law School Dean George Kirchway organized attendees of turn-of-the-century conferences on international arbitration to lay the foundations of the society. Dean Kirchway, Columbia Professors James Brown Scott and John Bassett Moore, and others formed a committee to draft a constitution and establish plans for a journal, which Prof. Scott went on to edit.
 
Other noteworthy ASIL leaders affiliated with the Law School include Professor Philip C. Jessup ’24, who served as ASIL president from 1954-55; Professor Oscar Schachter ’39, an architect of the United Nations’ legal framework, who presided over the ASIL from 1968-70; and University Professor Emeritus and human rights pioneer Louis Henkin, who co-edited the journal from 1976-84 and then served as president from 1994-96.
 
Now in its second century, ASIL needs to confront its own “correctable failings,” said Prof. Alvarez. “We should respond to the ‘50 Ways’ not by throwing our hands up in the air in frustration, but by creative legal thinking to get around current stalemates. . . . The history of international law is about innovating in the face of repeated failure. . . . I still believe progress is not only possible but necessary.”