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September 16, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of War

I’ve been reading a lot about Syria lately. And it’s been really really confusing—I’m about as well-versed in chemical weapons, rebels and dictatorships and Middle Eastern religious differences as Robin Thicke is in feminism. I can’t tell you whether we should be pledging military support to Syrian rebels, but I can try to demystify this concept of “international law”—although even some international-law scholars are still a bit unclear on how it actually works.

In the last century, we’ve developed this idea that although war is not nice for anyone, we can try to make it a bit less scary by regulating conduct—that’s where international law comes in (there are other kinds, but I figure Syrians don’t really care that much about the law of the sea or diplomatic immunity right now). There are two main ways that a country becomes bound by a rule of international law: they either sign up to it, or they just follow it because that’s what everyone else is doing.

International treaties are optional to sign up to, which makes it pretty hard to use treaties to enforce any new rules. One international treaty that’s particularly important in the context of Syria is the Geneva Convention, which bans the use of chemical weapons. There’s an argument that countries who are party to the Convention should take action against the Syrian forces who used the chemical weapons. However, even when a country has signed up to a treaty, it’s usually not very clear what happens if it breaches a treaty obligation—often it’s no more than a few stern looks at the next international leaders’ conference or a bad report card from the UN.

I like to think of the second type of international law as being like the unforgivable curses from Harry Potter. There are some things that most of us know are just not okay, like torture (crucio), slavery (imperio), or genocide (avada kedavra ALL the mud-bloods). Lawyers call these principles of jus cogens, which sounds like a spell, but is actually Latin for “compelling law” that countries may not breach in any circumstances.

When a rule of international law, like the rule against torture or the use of chemical weapons against civilians, is breached, the question is how the international community responds. The problem is that we don’t have many precedents to follow, and we don’t have strong institutions to enforce the law—and in the context of civil war, the line between right and wrong is often blurred.

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