International Law Weekend Brings Midwestern Lens to International Law

The law school’s Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute recently hosted International Law Weekend – Midwest, centering on the theme, The Legal Challenges of Globalization: A View from the Heartland.   

Among the 150 presenters and participants at the three-day conference were leading scholars in public and private international law, several deans of Midwestern law schools, journalists, and legal practitioners. 

The conference was organized in conjunction with the American Branch of the International Law Association (ILA) and co-sponsored by the International Association of Penal Law (American National Section). Speakers and panels addressed topics on a dozen key legal issues facing the international community today, from international contract farming to regulating commercial space markets to current issues in international criminal law to climate change. 

“This conference underscored the increasing impact of globalization on many different areas of law, and was a wonderful opportunity for our students and faculty to explore these topics with some of the leading scholars and practitioners in the United States” said Leila Nadya Sadat, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law and Harris Institute director. “We were honored that the ILA chose us to host this conference, and were delighted to welcome so many distinguished and prominent international lawyers to St. Louis.” 

 Many of the papers presented at the conference will be published in a special symposium edition of the Washington University Global Studies Law Review, including the three keynote addresses given at the conference. The first, by Ruth Wedgewood, president of the American Branch of the ILA and the Edward B. Burling Professor of International Law and Diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University, delivered an impassioned plea for paying reparations to victims of the cholera epidemic that has ravaged Haiti since 2010. Reportedly, the epidemic was caused by UN peacekeepers, but to date the organization has not accepted responsibility. 

“You can’t bring back the dead, but you can take care of the widows and orphans and nurse the people who’ve been debilitated by this disease back to health,” Wedgewood said. 

“This is a cri de coeur,” Wedgewood continued. “We need to settle this and set an example for nation-states. It sets an extraordinarily bad example for the organization that’s supposed to champion human rights to then seem to be utterly disinterested in the remedy for what they did.” 

Another keynote speaker, Mary Ellen O’Connell, the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law and Research Professor of International Dispute Resolution at the University of Notre Dame, discussed lawful and unlawful methods of controlling arms, from weapons of mass destruction to autonomous robots. 

“All categories of weaponry pose challenges for the international community,” O’Connell said. “For example, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are clearly unlawful to use and, yet, states still possess them—and, in the case of nuclear weapons, may even be seeking to obtain them. With regard to unmanned, cyber, and fully autonomous weapons, some in the international security area do not recognize the international legal restrictions that do or should restrict their use.” 

O’Connell added that traditional methods of controlling weapons, from trying to monopolize the technology to using military force, have not worked. “The lawful means of control available through international law is the only method that has proven effective,” she said.  

The third keynote was delivered by David Wippman, dean and the William S. Pattee Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota. His remarks on “How We Talk about International Law” provided a thoughtful perspective on the challenges scholars and lawyers have in expressing the full tour de force of international law in the 21st century.  

Other lectures and panels at the International Law Weekend – Midwest Regional Conference included: 

  • International Law and Practice in Times of Change: A journalist who has applied his experience overseas to study the Midwest, a professor of international and humanitarian law, the executive vice president and general counsel of Emerson Electric, and the CEO of the International Institute in St. Louis discussed the challenges of globalization and how they affect the Midwest.  
  • The South China Sea: The Intersection of Politics and International Law: In 2001, the Chinese forced down a U.S. surveillance plane over the South China Sea’s Exclusive Economic Zone—a dramatic example of the continuing tensions over these heavily contested waters. Panelists explored the diplomatic challenges China and the United States face as 90 percent of the world’s cargo travels by sea. 
  • International Contract Farming (UNIDROIT): 500 million people around the globe are hungry today, and with the world population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, food production will need to increase by 70 percent and double in most low-income countries. Panelists discussed whether contract farming, where farmers are guaranteed a market and a price for their goods, is the answer. 
  • Regulating and Incentivizing New and Existing Commercial Space Markets: Between 1967 and 1979, five treaties governing the use of outer space were signed. At the time, space was mostly used for communications satellites. However, today a growing interest in commercial space flight and other commercial activities requires new regulations that touch on tort, administrative, foreign relations, and insurance law. 
  • The Role of Institutions in Developing and Enforcing International Human Rights Law: What are human rights? What is human rights law? Where do human rights come from? This panel addressed these critical questions as it explored the history of human rights law, the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a human rights institution, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 
  • Current and Future Trends in Private International Law: Private law is rarely taught in American law schools, but it is commonly taught in civil law countries. This panel started with the assumption that private law is not only the most practical area of the law, but also a critical—if unacknowledged—part of various kinds of legal practice. 
  • The Role of Local Efforts in Addressing “Global” Climate Change: Individuals can be overwhelmed by the magnitude of global climate change. Using both theory and specific examples, this panel considered the ways that individuals, especially in cities, can play a part in making changes on the local level to mitigate, stop, or even reverse the process of climate change. 
  • Current Issues in International Criminal Law: In this diverse panel of international law experts, topics ranged from what one panelist called “the growing legitimacy deficit at the ICC” to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Kenyan case of Prosecutor v. Kenyatta, and the possibility that the United States might bomb Syria with or without international approval. 
  • Cross-Border Regionalism and the Public-Private Divide: Panelists addressed the issues that straddle the line dividing public and private law—indigenous people and the shifting international law paradigms that affect them, regional cooperation in wildlife and tropical rain forest conservation, and the protection of foreign investments and NAFTA Chapter 11.  
  • Careers in International Law: Alumni discussed their work with the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s Immigration Law Project and in international law at major firms, including international arbitration, international business transactions, and international trade and compliance. Panelists also provided valuable insight and advice for successful job search strategies that will help students in building their legal careers. 
  • The Future of Human Rights Litigation in the Wake of Kiobel: The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which held that crimes that do not take place on American soil cannot be heard in the states, presents a significant obstacle for bringing human right claims in the United States. This panel shed light on how the cause of human rights can be furthered in a post-Kiobel world. 

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By Timothy J. Fox