by Rhodri C. Williams
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a seminar marking the tenth anniversary of Sweden’s government agency “for international peace intervention”, the Folke Bernadotte Academy (FBA). The topic of the seminar was rule of law (RoL) in general and this Tuesday’s UN conference on the issue in particular. The high level meeting at this year’s 67th session of the UN General Assembly is one of these periodic, frantic plenary meetings where all the states in the world along with a plethora of observers and NGOs culminate weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling with (hopefully) the adoption of an outcome document that may push an important issue forward a few steps.
In the best case, the outcome will have legs even if the grandiosely named meetings themselves quickly fall into the obscurity of UN genealogy. Students are frequently bemused to hear that they failed to notice a “World Summit” hosted by the UN in 2005. However, few have failed to notice the resulting responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine. And for those of us in the rights-based humanitarianism branch, the strong endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement buried in paragraph 132 of the Outcome Document may come to be seen as a pretty important step in the long march from soft law to opinio juris. But I digress.
Some of the talk at the FBA seminar was about the high-level politics of the high-level meeting, and particularly an emerging tendency to distinguish RoL as applied at the international versus the national levels. This has apparently been one of the key debates surrounding the drafting of the outcome document, with states that see domestic RoL as one of their own virtues more inclined to promote it to others (and the targets of their exhortations curiously more interested in the international variant). However, all indications are that there will be a buffet-style compromise, with both national and international RoL, as well as various ‘nexuses’ in between on offer.
This is perhaps most clearly evinced in the UN Secretary-General’s preparatory report for the conference, which proposes the adoption of a broad and often ambitious programme of action. Some proposals are simply unrealistic (states should ‘remove any reservations’ to UN treaties they have ratified, para. 12). Others are curious to the point of evoking typos (UN post-conflict RoL assistance should ‘promote gender’, full stop – para. 24). However, the overall feel of the document is quite sound, reflecting an increasingly emphatic accommodation of legal empowerment and economic/social concerns in an area of practice that arguably began as a bastion of orthodox civil and political imperatives.