International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2009 Issue

In Review:
New Publications on International and Comparative Law

Culture and International LawCulture and International Law
Edited by Paul Meerts. Hague Academic
Press. 2008

The subject of this recent publication by the Hague Academic Press is important, and thus the essays presented it are of real importance if the reader is bilingual (English and French). However, the decision of the editor, or publisher, or perhaps both, to print the book partly in English and partly in French, is unfortunate, because it renders substantial parts of the book unavailable to those who do not speak both English and French. With four of the 13 essays in French and the remainder in English, the impact of the book is less substantial than it might have been had the book been printed completely in English or completely in French, and then also translated into the other language.

The work is a compilation of essays derived from the Fourth Conference From Peace to Justice of The Hague Academic Coalition held in the April, 2007. The HAC is a “consortium of academic institutions [all located in The Netherlands] in the fields of international relations, international law, and international development.”

Even in the Table of Contents, there is a language problem. The English essays are listed in English and the French essays are listed in French. The editor and publisher did make one small attempt to accommodate non-bilingual readers: each essay is preceded by an abstract in the language not used in the body of the essay. This reviewer, who is not bilingual, was thus able to obtain some very general idea of the principal points of the French essays.

The effect of the decision to bifurcate the language issue in printing and publishing the book is immediate when an English-only reader begins to read it. The opening essay, probably one of the most important in the whole book (La Culture et L’Esprit des Lois – Culture and the Spirit of Laws) leads off the first section on Culture and International Law, and is written in French, thereby preventing English-only readers from the insights offered by the essay author. The English “uni-linguist” only knows that the essayist elaborates on “five fields of universal problems,” best summarized as (1) inequality; (2) the need for certainty; (3) relationship with others; (4) emotionality according to sex; and (5) orientation in time, between the future, present and past. It would have been nice if non-bilinquists had been given the opportunity to explore in depth the author’s ideas about these five “fields.”

French is the language of choice in the second essay in the section, where the subject is “Culure et Droit - L’influence de la culture sur le droit international et ses developpements (Culture and Law – the influence of culture on international law and its development). An even shorter abstract than that for Chapter 1 describes the essay as one focusing primarily on diversity issues and the “acceptance of different legal norms and against uniformity of legal regimes.” An interesting topic, but again not one available to the English-only reader.

One of the best English essays is the third in the group, written by A.S. “Sam” Muller, founding director of the Hague Institute for the Internationalization of Law (HIIC). The title of the work is complex: The Triple Helix of Culture, International Law and the Development of International Law.” Muller admits initially that he is not “an expert in law and culture” but nevertheless offers some very real insights into issues relating to culture and international law.

He proceeds to develop three “interwoven threads that make our topic of today so complex”:

“1. That international law is undergoing tremendous changes – some related to culture but many not.

2. That culture is undergoing tremendous changes – some related to international law but many (most) not; and

3. That the interaction between the two is, in and of itself, also changing, and that it is hugely important that we understand what is going on.”

Taking each proposition in turn, Muller first recognizes that the “distinction between national law and international law is becoming more and more difficult to make. Increasingly international law works directly within States and affects its citizens very directly.”As an example he notes that when drafting laws, it is not enough to consider only one’s own legal system. He continues:

There is little point in the Dutch adopting a national banking law that does not take into account the banking laws of states which the Dutch have large-scale commercial dealings, or which violate accepted international standards (whether formal law or not). And if a State with which Dutch registered companies want to do business does not possess a basically compliant national banking law then the Dutch have an interest in assisting that State in attaining one.

He concludes that “international law is nationalising and national law is internationalising.”

About changing culture, Muller sums up his commentary with the observation that “a cosmopolitan culture of universality is mixing, sometimes clashing, with a need to express the local, the small, the immediate, the ‘old’ and the ‘authentic.’”

For his third proposition Muller observes that little is known about the relationship between law and culture, and that we need to investigate that relationship more fully and in more depth because “social and cultural factors” are the least transferable in the business of building institutions and systems within states (a conclusion of the American author Francis Fukuyama). He concludes with the observation that “for me, understanding the relationship between culture and law goes to the hart (sic) of making law work.”

The second section of the book covers “International Law: Culture and Context” and includes essays on “Cultural Diversity and Freedom of Expression,” and “Accommodating Diversity in International Human Rights,” both in English. There are also two French essays in this group.

One of these essays is particularly important, because it deals with Islamic views about international law. The essay contains what most readers will consider a startling statement: “Islam has elaborate rules on international law.” However the reader is informed later that “one contemporary scholar reflected that Islamic international law is merely an extension of Islamic law dealing with relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, whether within or outside the realm of Islam.” But the author also assures us that most Muslim countries accept the general principles and customs of international law, the one exception being international human rights laws, because of the emphasis there on issues of inequality, both in religion and between the sexes, and also because of differing perspectives on torture. This essay in particular demonstrates the value of examining the relationship between international law and culture.

One other chapter in this section would have been of great interest to this reviewer, and probably to many other uni-linguists who are interested in international law. The seventh chapter deals with “China and the Culture of Law.” It is presented in French and so is unavailable in this review for comment.

The third section of the book deals with “International Law: Culture and Conflict” and is largely confined to the issue of protection of cultural property during times of armed conflict.

Despite the limitations of this book because of the language problem, there are certain essays in it that makes reading it a worthwhile endeavor. The Muller essay and the one dealing with Islam and international law are particularly valuable, and make the book worthy of purchase.

As Sam Muller points out, the issue of the interplay between culture and law is one that has not often been explored, and needs to be more deeply investigated to pave the way for the acceptance of international law around the world. This book is at least a start in the right direction.

by Dr. James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief of the International Judicial Monitor and President, International Judicial Academy

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© 2009 – The International Judicial Academy with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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