With more than a dozen states considering banning Sharia (Islamic law) in their courts, laws governing other countries are facing increased scrutiny.
“This is emblematic of U.S. fears about international law,” says Leila Nadya Sadat, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law and director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. “International law has become a ‘whipping boy’ for the ills that are being felt because of globalization.”
Sadat says that this is unfortunate because the United States proudly led the trial of the major German leaders at the end of World War II at Nuremberg.
“In fact, the entire post-World War II framework of modern international law was, if not an American creation, at least American inspired and American driven,” she says.
“The United States played a crucial role in providing both the logistical infrastructure and the legal talent to creating the United Nations at the end of World War II.”
Sadat, an internationally recognized authority in public international law, international criminal law and human rights, says that the U.S. view of international law inspired its European allies.
“The Europeans took our faith in the rule of law and created the European community,” she says.
“Ironically, it is no longer the United States that continues to champion the international rule of law,” she says.
Indeed, following World War II, the United States failed to ratify many important treaties such as the Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and has not supported major initiatives such as the International Criminal Court.
Sadat disagrees with the standard geopolitical explanation for this phenomenon: That once the United States became a superpower, it was simply free to reject international law no matter the cost.
“I think that’s a simplistic answer to a much more complex problem,” she says.
“There is clearly a cultural, legal and educational component to this phenomenon, particularly among U.S. lawyers who, after all, play a large role in shaping U.S. attitudes toward international law.
“U.S. law schools were slow to modernize their curricula after World War I, and were offering very few courses in foreign languages, international law, comparative law or foreign law. Moreover, those courses were almost never part of the ‘standard’ law curriculum (and still are not at most law schools today), nor were they required.
“Most lawyers who are over a certain age – many of whom hold influential positions as judges, legislators, consultants, practicing attorneys and professors — never studied international law or comparative law and many never studied a foreign language. This gap in our educational system – which is almost unique to America among modern democracies — contributes extensively to the views of policy-makers and decision-makers not to see international and comparative law as part of their tool box for problem solving, something that they are familiar with and that they could master and use.
“Instead, there is often a perception that international and foreign law are ‘un-American’ and inherently inimical to U.S. interests,” Sadat says.
Sadat says that when the United States goes into diplomatic negotiations, “We have great lawyers, we have a great team of negotiators and we generally get most if not everything we want.
“It is important to recognize that international law is not something imposed upon the United States from above, it’s something that we create along with other nations — and we can do that incredibly well,” she says.
At Washington University School of Law, Sadat directs the Harris World Law Institute, which has, among other things, completed the first three phases of an initiative to complete the Nuremberg legacy by drafting a comprehensive crimes against humanity convention that countries can adopt.
“Washington University has a broad global outreach and a cosmopolitan vision of the future,” Sadat says. “There are a lot of very exciting things going on at this university that I am proud to be part of.”
Sadat currently is serving as the first woman to hold the prestigious Alexis de Tocqueville Distinguished Fulbright Chair in Paris, France, and teaching at the University of Cergy-Pontoise. Follow her work and travels in her blog at An American in Paris: Professor Leila Nadya Sadat.
Sadat discussed the relationship between the United States and international law in her article “The Nuremberg Paradox,” published in the American Journal of Comparative Law.
It received the Article of the Year Award from the International Association of Penal Law (L’Association Internationale de Droit Penal – AIDP). AIDP is the oldest global organization of criminal law specialists.