Is Thin Justice Justice?

David Luban is University Professor in Law and Philosophy at Georgetown University.

Steven Ratner’s The Thin Justice of International Law (TJIL) is a great achievement. His project – to bring contemporary analytic political philosophy into conversation with international law – is admirable, and I don’t think anyone has ever done it better. Ratner is clear, comprehensive, and creative. He sets out counter-arguments to his own views fairly and fully, and defends his conclusions against them with careful reasoning, sine ira et studio. I say all this at the outset because the nature of this symposium is to raise questions, and before turning to the criticisms I want to emphasize the many virtues of TJIL.

Of course, the central virtue of a theory is its truth. In most of the book, Ratner’s procedure is quite straightforward: he considers various central legal norms in different subject-areas of international law and tests them by asking whether they maintain peace and respect basic human rights, the “two pillars” of his system. If they do, they are, in his sense, thinly just. In what follows, I will express some doubts about the claim of thin justice to the label “justice.” But this may not be a central issue, because asking whether legal norms keep the peace and respect rights are important questions in their own right, regardless of whether these two pillars amount to “justice,” thin or thick. The heart of the book lies in his answers to the questions about which norms do the best job of keeping peace and respecting rights; whether the two pillars add up to justice is a separate theoretical meta-issue. Some existing norms pass the two tests, some don’t; some alternative possibilities score better on these tests, others don’t. (He summarizes his findings on pp. 410-13.) It would go beyond the scope of this blog post to evaluate even a fraction of these conclusions about which, Ratner himself acknowledges, he has varying degrees of confidence (409). Those conclusions are, by and large, progressive reforms, where “progressive” is measured by promotion of human rights. Thus, for example, Ratner would strip away state immunities for jus cogens crimes (and thus he rejects the ICJ’s regressive Germany v. Italy decision); he favors universal jurisdiction for core international crimes (notwithstanding distaste for it by political elites in both the powerful states and the developing world); he is on the side of R2P and against any absolute ban on humanitarian military intervention; he places both economic and political rights among the basic human rights. His views largely align with liberal internationalism. Because I largely agree with these conclusions, I rate the book high on the virtue of truth.

  1. The status quo?

Several of Ratner’s critics have complained that the book is largely a defense of the status quo, an accusation that he rejects – pointing to several important legal reforms that he advocates. But it seems to me that the complaint is fundamentally right, because non-deviation from the status quo belongs to the DNA of his project. Consider, first, that “the goal of this project is to appraise the norms we have” (84-85) – a point Ratner repeats in an EJIL:Talk! Symposium – so his starting point is the state system and the current lex lata. Even his list of basic human rights is “derived from examining the practice of states” (75-76, 98), although it would not be difficult to derive nearly the same list through direct argument. Next, he argues that respecting stable expectations is a “fairness corollary” of the rule of law (87-88). This corollary seems to imply that large-scale deviations from lex lata are unjust (unfair), because they would violate state expectations. Furthermore, Ratner adheres to a “compliance corollary” (89), which views reform proposals skeptically if they are “unrealistic.” What makes them unrealistic is that “global actors,” and in particular “powerful states do not accept certain proposed rules” (89). So current global power distributions also influence the thin theory of justice. Even though the compliance corollary is only an “alarm bell” against utopian proposals (89) rather than a theoretical requirement, Ratner likens it to Sidgwick’s “ought implies can” precept in moral theory – and that is a theoretical requirement.

Taken together, Ratner’s two corollaries imply that his inquiry could never yield results that radically change the lex lata. At best, thin justice will yield only reforms at the margin, and only those that would not seriously upset states, especially powerful states. Built into the nature of his project and his two corollaries is what Koskenniemi calls “the pull of the mainstream.” I am not sure Ratner would disagree; my sense is that he regards responsiveness to the pull of the mainstream as a virtue, not a vice, of his approach. It is what distinguishes his legally informed discussion from straight-up analytic philosophy. The pull of the mainstream explains the sense in which his theory is decidedly non-ideal; but, as I next argue, it puts pressure on the claim that it is a theory of justice.

  1. The compliance corollary

I believe the compliance corollary is a serious mistake. The analogy to Sidgwick’s “ought implies can” is misleading. Sidgwick means that morality can’t require you to do the impossible in a causal sense. It does not mean justice can’t require you to do something you don’t wish to do, for example because it is against your interests. If that were what “ought implies can” meant, it would spell the end of justice and morality. (This was Kant’s point in his 1793 essay On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice.)

The fact that for self-interested reasons powerful states do not like some rule, and would not comply with it, has no bearing on whether, as a matter of justice, they ought to promote that rule or comply with it if it comes into being. State hostility and anticipated non-compliance is a good reason for a politician or NGO to avoid politically impossible lex ferenda proposals. But the actors governed by norms of international justice are not the reformist politicians or the NGOs. The actors are the states whose behavior the law would regulate. Under existing principles of IL formation, it is their treaty-making and opinio juris-backed practices that creates rules of IL. For a state to say “We won’t comply with this proposed rule, and therefore it cannot be a requirement of justice” would be absurd. There is no “therefore.”

It follows that the compliance corollary is not a requirement of justice, not even a methodological requirement for deriving rules of non-ideal justice. Now, it may be that Ratner agrees. At one point he concedes that the compliance corollary could actually “rule out certain proposed rules … demanded … by the two pillars of justice” that constitute his own theory (89). In other words, the compliance corollary may violate justice on Ratner’s own “thin” terms. In that case, it does not really belong in an inquiry about justice. I would say it is closer to a principle of political expedience for analysts who want their proposals to get taken seriously by politicians and policy-makers. Nothing wrong with that: but it is decidedly not the job of a theory of justice – even a non-ideal theory – to tailor its requirements to what current politicians and policy-makers will take seriously.

In any case, the compliance corollary would pose grave difficulties for one of Ratner’s pillars of thin justice, basic human rights. Taking the compliance corollary seriously would threaten the basic right of gender equality, and LGBTQ rights would stand no chance in international law. China, which never ratified the ICCPR, regularly denounces universal human rights as an affront to its sovereignty, and the current Philippine president recently said, succinctly, “Forget the laws on human rights.” The Philippines is the twelfth-largest country in the world. Russia, too, has expressed suspicion of human rights as an infringement on sovereignty; and although Russia belongs to the European Convention on Human Rights, its flagrant violations have generated a paralyzing backlog of complaints in the Strasbourg court that in their effect resemble an internet denial-of-service attack on the court’s capacity to function. It seems to me that if Ratner wishes to maintain human rights as a pillar of thin justice – as of course he does – then the compliance corollary has got to go.

One response to this objection is that what we are after is not a theory of justice (full stop) but a theory of justice within international law. A norm that those it governs won’t comply with can hardly count as law. For example, at one point Ratner considers the question of whether basic human rights should be the same in wartime as they are in peacetime. There might be theoretical reasons to think the answer is yes, but Ratner objects that states won’t comply with any such rules – and then what is the point of insisting on them as a matter of justice? (See 390-91.)

Actually, Ratner answers his own question: he argues that IHL is one area of law where thin justice “seems to bounce off” the important questions (387) rather than answering them. So one answer is that we should settle for rules that war fighters might actually comply with, but not pretend they are just. Alternatively, we could build just rules into IHL, even though war fighters won’t comply with them. (Arguably, this is precisely what happened with the law concerning human shields. The in bello rules in Additional Protocol I forbid the use of human shields, but they also forbid attacks that would inflict disproportionate civilian damage. In asymmetric or guerrilla conflicts, complying with the former might spell annihilation for the weaker party, while complying with the latter would tie the hands of the stronger party. It seems obvious that one or the other, if not both, will violate the rules – but both rules have a claim to being just.)

  1. Consequentialism

Ratner describes his approach to moral evaluation as rule consequentialist. “I am asking whether various rules or alternatives to them, if followed by the actors to whom they are directed, would be reasonably expected to lead to certain states of affairs defined in terms of peace and human rights” (83). This is rule consequentialism of a special sort: it asks about the consequences of rules if actors comply with them. It is, in other words, rule consequentialism under the assumption of full compliance. This already deviates from a more usual version of consequentialism, which asks about consequences given whatever level of compliance we would expect to find in the actual world. (It also seems in tension with the compliance corollary, but I don’t regard that as a problem because I don’t accept the compliance corollary.)

The assumption of full compliance assumes (at least implicitly) the efficacy of international law. It assumes, for example, that the reason states refrain from aggression against other states is the efficacy of the non-aggression norm in IL, rather than military deterrence and balance-of-power politics. Ratner seems uncertain about this. At one point, he concedes that IL has played little role in preventing major wars (70); elsewhere, he says that the UN’s prohibition on the use of force “had a huge effect on state attitudes regarding the legitimacy of war” (416).

My sense is that in places he assumes efficacy and in places not. Here is an example where the inconsistency is apparent on the surface. Discussing the view of some near-pacifists that the Article 51 right of self-defense actually harms rather than helps peace, Ratner reiterates his full-compliance version of rule consequentialism: “We have to evaluate, based on our intuitions and experiences, the expected real-world consequences of following one rule or another rule” (121; emphasis added). So we must ask ourselves what would likely happen if the right of self-defense were narrowed or even eliminated. The answer is “that depriving states of a right of self-defense would invite aggression” (121). That seems like mere common sense. But it is tantamount to saying that without article 51, other states would not comply with the international prohibition of aggression. Here, he drops the assumption of full compliance. The inconsistency is that Ratner assumes full compliance to test the consequence of article 51, without assuming full compliance with rules banning aggression.

But he can’t have it both ways. Either we must drop the full-compliance assumption, or apply it to both sides of the article 2(4)-article 51 dyad. If we drop the full-compliance assumption for both sides of the dyad, the argument would be that even without article 51, states experiencing aggression will fight back if they can; and, knowing this, would-be aggressors will be deterred to roughly the same extent they are now. If we apply the full-compliance assumption throughout the argument, then even without article 51, there would be no aggressors. Ratner’s conclusion that dropping article 51 would invite aggression illicitly equivocates. The argument is unsound. (I don’t mean to imply from this critique that I agree with the near-pacifist argument he is criticizing. Its proponents not only criticize article 51, but also believe that states should not defend themselves against aggression unless it threatens basic human rights, a view I find hard to swallow.)

  1. Immunity of high officials

So far I have been discussing general theoretical questions. I haven’t discussed any of his individual normative conclusions. I will single out just one, Ratner’s defense of personal immunity of incumbent high government officials against prosecution in another state’s courts for core international crimes. This is an issue of some current moment: it is increasingly obvious that the ICC has only slight capacity to bring murderous leaders to justice, and if they are immune from state prosecutions as well, they have practical impunity. Ratner favors universal jurisdiction and supports accountability. He also supports the current rule, which denies personal immunity to former officials; why, then, incumbent immunity? Not only does that immunity harm accountability, the differential treatment of incumbent and former officials obviously provides a perverse incentive for them to cling to their offices. (I note that Ratner’s differential treatment is the current law as reflected in the ICJ’s Arrest Warrant decision. So this is one issue on which he defends the status quo.)

His answer is that incumbent immunity is essential to diplomatic intercourse, and therefore to peace (204). The importance of immunity to diplomatic intercourse is what commentators usually call the “functional” theory of immunity, and it is the official rationale given in Arrest Warrant (¶¶53-55); Lord Millett also alludes to it in his thoughtful Pinochet speech. Ratner ties the functional theory to the peace pillar of thin justice. But that connection is less obvious than it appears at first glance. The fact that a particular leader or other high official is a possible target of prosecution plausibly means that the target official won’t personally participate in diplomatic negotiations with – and especially in the territory of – states that target him or her. But the evidence that that will undermine peace is sparse and even divided. Observers have said that the ICTY’s indictment of Radovan Karadžić, which prevented him from participating in the Dayton peace negotiations, was crucial for achieving an agreement. This is a case where immunity, had it been available, might have harmed peace. One can certainly imagine similar scenarios where keeping a toxic leader or genocidal foreign minister away from the negotiating table helps rather than hinders peace.

The jurisprudence on immunity sets out an alternative ground of official immunity, usually known as the “representational” theory. The latter theory holds that the head of state personifies the state itself, so that indicting a head of state insults the state’s dignity. As Lord Millett put it in his Pinochet opinion, indictment “would be an affront to the dignity and sovereignty of the state which he personifies.” Equals have no dominion over equals. Although the theories are very different, they are sometimes entwined in the jurisprudence. Notably, in Arrest Warrant the ICJ relied on the functional theory to find that the foreign minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo enjoyed criminal immunity; but it also agreed with the DRC that Belgium had committed a “moral injury” against the DRC by issuing an arrest warrant for him (¶75) – so the representational theory is also there.

Ratner does not rest his case for incumbent immunity on the representational theory, only on the functional theory. But he does accept the representational theory’s theoretical underpinning when he argues that without sovereign equality, “unprivileged states violating human rights would be so insulted” that dialogue would become impossible (215). Elsewhere, he quotes with approval Philip Jessup’s remarks that “States have ‘feelings’” (200). So his view would at least be open to grounding incumbent immunity in the representational theory, which personifies states and their sense of dignity.

In my view, however, thinking this way illicitly anthropomorphizes states (something that Ratner himself objects to – see 197), and obfuscates matters. To be sure, state elites have feelings, and they may be insulted (or pretend to be) if they or their cronies are called to account for their crimes. But it is vital not to identify the state with its elites; doing so is one of the abiding temptations that international lawyers face, one it is crucial to resist. In addition, of course, populations often have nationalist sentiments that can be whipped up by demagogues, and perhaps that is what Ratner fears when he cautions against insulting states. This is a particularly fraught issue if the state aiming to prosecute a toxic, murderous leader of another state happens to be that other state’s former colonial master (Belgium in the DRC, Spain in Mexico, Guatemala, and Argentina). But the rage of nationalist masses should also not be packaged as the “feelings” of the state. Nationalists have no more claim to personify the state than other citizens who may not share their rages and grudges – such as the victims who have been tortured or raped or had their loved ones murdered by the toxic leader. They also have feelings, and they are also part of the nation. They are probably not the only ones in the state who shed no tears for the murderous leader who faces criminal indictment under universal jurisdiction; many others may be cheering the prosecution. The lack of evidence to substantiate a categorical link between immunity, diplomatic intercourse and peace, plus the dangers of attributing feelings of insult to states that are actually made up of a great diversity of incongruous feelings, leave a critical reader less satisfied that Ratner’s grounds for maintaining immunity are just.

I am especially concerned about this issue because in my view aggressive claims of immunity, even for jus cogens crimes, amounts to a Counter-Reformation in international law. (I have remarked on this here and here.) In addition to the Germany v. Italy case, where Ratner too argues against immunity, Arrest Warrant and the European Court of Human Rights decisions in Al-Adsani and Jones v. United Kingdom have in my view seriously damaged the avenue of accountability opened up by Pinochet. All of them place the state interest in immunity above the human interest in enforcing the jus cogens.

  1. Immunity and the romance of the nation-state

Decades ago, I warned against the theoretical error of assuming an identity between nations and states – a “romance of the nation-state” that underlies the representational theory of immunity, but also the more absolutist claims of state sovereignty. Anthropomorphizing states by speaking of their feelings, and insults to those feelings, is a version of the romance of the nation-state. It gives aid and power to demagogic elites seeking to shore up their power while committing human rights violations. Although Ratner suspects that I am hostile to the state system (123-24), that is not true; I agree with him that the state system helps keep the peace, and peace matters. My own view is closer to that of Kofi Annan in his famous 1999 address to the General Assembly, arguing that state sovereignty must be limited by human rights. This is an optimistic but unromantic view of the state. As a historical matter, Charles Tilly probably got it right that the state originated as a large-scale protection racket; Tilly’s view is not much different from David Hume’s. But we should never sneer at protection, if the opposite is no protection. Annan, as I read him, was implicitly suggesting that it is time for states to distance themselves from their Tillyan origins, and I take that to be Ratner’s project as well. All the more reason to reject the romance of the nation-state and with it the claim of murderous elites to personify their nations.