Monday, October 24, 2011

The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law

In this blog post, a new and increasingly popular way to research the work of the United Nations (UN) is introduced. Instead of seeing the international organization as mainly a political organization, the UN is increasingly seen as a "Town Meeting of the World," i.e. a global debating society, where ideas are discussed and developed by representatives of the international community.

Of course, the United Nations (UN) is a political organization, an alliance of all the world’s States gathered together to achieve some ambitious common goals and tackle the most important global challenges. The focus in UN-research is generally on the way the UN has sought to achieve this formidable task, inter alia by encouraging its Member States to actively pursue these common goals.

The Organization achieves this by translating the moral language of global values into the language of public international law. This results in various treaty texts, recommended by the United Nations to its Membership. Many of these texts have indeed become binding international law through the consent of all States party to such treaties. Some of these treaties also establish separate legal regimes, where responsibilities are allocated and various (legal) incentives for compliance put in place.

In the book The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law, this process is studied in a non-traditional way. The emphasis is not on the question as to what the existing legal obligations are and how compliance is ensured and how effective these compliance mechanisms are. Instead, the focus is on the role of the United Nations in the articulation and evolution of the goals themselves. The central question is as follows: What is the role of the United Nations in reaching global consensus on what the international community should look like and in which direction it ought to develop?

A detailed examination of the travaux préparatoires of the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 shows that the UN’s establishment was greatly influenced by global values, i.e. globally shared beliefs that distinguish evil from good, the present from a better world. A common desire to eradicate war, poverty, inhuman treatment and exploitation of peoples, has led to confirmation of the global values of peace and security, social progress and development, human dignity, and self-determination of peoples.

These values can already be found, albeit in rudimentary form, in the UN Charter. Over time, the Charter has proved to evolve, like a “living tree”: although the text of the Charter has not changed significantly, its interpretation has followed the changing conditions of society; this way the norms and values of the UN Charter have always remained topical and relevant. The study charts how the United Nations, and especially the General Assembly, have continuously contributed to the global values debate, and how these values have been translated into the language of international law, including through the introduction of novel legal concepts such as the responsibility to protect, sustainable development, human security and the right to self-determination.

The study shows that the value of peace and security mainly evolved through the UN’s efforts to identify a list of potential threats, such as interstate aggression, civil war, and terrorism. When it comes to social progress and development, the General Assembly has focused on the preparation of a long series of action plans and development programs. Furthermore, there is increasing attention for sustainable development and the legal rights and obligations deriving therefrom. The work of the United Nations on human dignity includes an impressive list of human rights that all countries should respect. The debate on self-determination is still in development. It is clear that it is based on the desire of communities to control their own destiny, without any external oppression.

In examining the intellectual history of the United Nations, one is struck by the abstract nature of the debates. This distinguishes them from the usual inter-State meetings, which have a more political or practical nature. Yet the debates in San Francisco and the General Assembly cannot be characterized as merely theoretical debates. The participants are all representatives of a particular State, with its own cultural and historical traditions and interests. To reach agreement, all representatives - together constituting a colorful patchwork quilt of various cultures, religions and traditions - have to negotiate. The final result is a carefully phrased global consensus on the direction the international community should take. While attempts are being made to achieve this goal, this goal itself - expressed in the language of global values - does not sit still. Instead, it is constantly developing or evolving...

Interesting website: Audiovisual Library of International Law (especially the section on the UN Charter)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation in The Hague

Guest Blog by Joël Groeneveld, Office Manager/Program Officer:

The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation

Unresolved historical claims can, when misunderstood or manipulated, create and reaffirm prejudice and hatred among populations, thus fueling ethnic and nationalistic violence and conflict. Therefore, in order to promote tolerance and reconciliation, there is oftentimes the need to overcome these distortions of historical reality. The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation seeks to contribute to this goal through helping scholars from different sides of a conflict work together to research and write narratives that can be shared among communities or peoples in conflict. Through this process of shared work, a better understanding of “the other” is gained by both sides. The process seeks to dispel public myths around disputed historical legacies through the use of shared narrative and to develop networks of engaged citizens who can debate, confront and change those disputed and confrontational historical legacies.

What does this mean in the practice? How can historical accounts help understand the position of ‘the other’? A good example is the most current book published by IHJR, Two Sides of the Coin: Independence and Nakba 1948, Two Narratives of the 1948 War and its Outcome. In this unique joint enterprise, a Palestinian and an Israeli, both historians, worked together to offer multi-perspective narratives on the War of 1948. Their task was not easy, as they explain: ‘the attempt to formulate one text consisting of two different and often contradictory stories was emotionally challenging for both of us, as it required each of us to take part in formulating a narrative that was contradictory to our own respective experiences and education and that often challenged our respective identities”. And yet, the fact that his book has come to light goes to show that the narrative of ’the other‘ can be understood and respected, even when in some cases it is not shared.

IHJR has worked extensively to tackle the historical claims in the Israel-Palestine conflict, through different historical approximations. For example the book Zoom In: Palestinian Refugees of 1948, Remembrances, presents pictures and individual students reactions to them. This approach showcases not only that there is still a need for understanding, but also how deeply ingrained perceptions of ‘the other’ are in this conflict. The Sacred Sites in the Holy Land: Historical and Religious perspectives publication seeks instead to familiarize both sides with the narrative of ‘the other’ regarding holy places, while working towards a common narrative of their religious significance.

Yet the issues of unresolved historical claims are not particular to one region; that is why IHJR is also involved in other areas of the world, such as the Former Yugoslavia and its successor states. The facilitation offered by IHJR was pivotal for the publication of Political Myths in the Former Yugoslavia and Successor States. A Shared Narrative, a book which attempts to dispel political myths that fueled the Balkan conflict. There is currently active work as well in the Armenia-Turkey area, and research is being done on the Roma population in areas of Eastern Europe where conflict is most acute and violence against this population is on the rise.

IHJR hopes that others are inspired by the institute’s approach and that they begin using history as a means for fostering peace-building efforts. It continues to disseminate shared narratives through various media, such as publications, documentaries and photo exhibitions, as well as through engaging civil society and educators. For more information, please visit the website at or write an email to

Monday, October 10, 2011

Eichmann Trial 50 years

On Tuesday 11th October, a lecture will take place on the lasting impact of the Eichmann Trial half a century after the trial took place.

Adolf Eichmann was a German Nazi official, a SS Obersturmbannführer and one of the prominent architects of the Holocaust.

When the Second World War came to an end, Eichmann managed to escape prosecution by fleeing to Argentina. He lived a quiet life in Argentina as a rabbit farmer under a false identity until 1960 when he was discovered by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. After carefully planning his arrest, he was captured and smuggled out of the country without informing the Argentine government. This led to a diplomatic dispute over territorial sovereignty in which The United nations Security Council eventually mediated.

He was then transported to Israel to stand trial in what was to become one of the most controversial trials in international legal history. The news of his capture and abduction to Israel created much uneasiness for German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the members of his cabinet and their possible involvement in war crimes. According to Der Spiegel, the German government knew his whereabouts as early as 1952, but never made a serious attempt to bring him to justice. In 1956, Eichmann even wrote an open letter to Chancellor Adenauer in which he suggested he should be allowed to return to Germany to tell the people what really happened during the War. After Eichmann was abducted to Israel, the Adenauer government held a crisis meeting, where they agreed to take all necessary measures to make clear that he was a stooge of Himmler´s SS and that he was not an authorized agent of Germany.

The Eichmann trial started on 11th April 1962 in Jerusalem. Eichmann was indicted on 15 criminal charges including crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish People and membership in an outlawed organization. The legal basis of the trial against Eichmann was the 1950 ´´ Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law´´.

The Eichmann trial can be considered as not just a trial of one individual, but a trial against anti Semitism as a whole throughout history. It was to demonstrate and communicate the dangers of anti Semitism and serve as a reminder for the dangers of permitting the destruction of six million Jews. Furthermore, it brought to light the lack of initiative of the West German government to bring ex Nazis to trial. This was discussed by Matthew Lippman in The Houston Journal of International Law (1982, vol. 5, pp. 1-34)summing up all legal issues raised in the trial. (“The Trial of Adolf Eichmann and the Protection of Universal Human Rights under International Law”)

The trial was broadcast internationally and was the first televised trial in history. After eight months, he was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death. Five months later, he was executed by hanging and his ashes were scattered at sea.

Dr. Ruth Birn, Professor Thomas Mertens and Professor Harmen van der Wilt will lecture on the several aspects of this controversial trial.
The Peace Palace Library has an extensive collection on the Eichmann trial. These include books and articles on the legal, political, psychological and philosophical aspects of the trial.