Why International Law Matters in a Post-ISIS Era

United Nations flags
United Nations flags

We live in a frightening time. We live in an era when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, arguably rules a geographic area bigger than most European states and whose multi-faceted international reach is attempting to make an apocalyptic global impact. And in a way, it already has.

With the recent attacks in Paris, many have claimed that the third world war is already underway. What's more terrifying is that the Paris attack is only the tip of the iceberg; it is one of the only ISIS attacks that went viral in mainstream media. Meanwhile, there have been countless attacks, for which ISIS claims responsibility, throughout this past year. In fact, in just the past 2 months, there have been nearly 10 attacks, spanning 6 countries and 3 continents: Lebanon, Egypt, Bangladesh, Yemen, Turkey and now, France.

What would be equally frightening to the terror of ISIS is for states to disregard principles of international law and to blithely take matters into their own hands. Despite the inhumane and outrageous tactics being used by ISIS, not to mention the complete disregard for the laws of war, international law still matters because there is no other collective body of universal principles aimed at making our world a better place. Now, more than ever, our world is in need of the United Nations: an overarching global agency whose purpose is to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person."

Yes, the UN has been highly criticized for its aspirational ideals, lack of enforcement and inability to succeed in achieving its original purpose. Yes the UN, its structure and its leadership, have countless imperfections. Yes, the Security Council is a highly politicized historical artifact of a post-Cold War era that is becoming more and more unrepresentative of today's world.

But, in the long-term, the UN and international law present the most comprehensive and effective, albeit imperfect, means of dealing with human rights atrocities and acts of terror -- particularly by such global threats and attacks as those carried out by ISIS. In the long term, international law sets the universal norms which aim to protect those of us who are most vulnerable. These norms may take decades to be implemented, if at all, but at least a minimum standard of protection is being set.

The world is more interconnected than it ever has before -- technologically, economically and legally. Similarly, international law has been growing and evolving in its breadth and reach. The UN now has 193 member states, many of whom may not necessarily apply all of the principles and obligations necessitated by this membership, but all of whom still show up to engage in international dialogue. Consider the Universal Periodic Review mechanism which is a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 member states of the UN. Even such a reclusive state, with egregious violations of human rights, as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has shown up for its 2 cycles of peer-to-peer review.

Rather than dismissing the power and potential of international law, legal experts and policy makers from around the world need to continue developing innovative and collaborative methods for better dealing with global acts of terror. As one example, some experts have called for the creation of a comprehensive UN convention against terrorism. Rather than responding to ISIS with the knee-jerk reaction of more violence, more airstrikes or more xenophobic discrimination, international law needs to be utilized to address the root source of terrorism: an utter and complete lack of respect for the rule of law and ultimately, for humanity.

The protection of human rights should always be a legitimate moral action and not one that brings us to the inhumane ignobility of those we seek to overcome. International law still matters because rather than using 'terrorist'-like tactics in an attempt to liken ourselves to the enemy, it allows us to set a minimum standard of humanity with the aspiration that, one day, our enemies will liken themselves to our higher standards of morality and human decency.