Customary Law

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customary law
  *  The research for this article was initially undertaken for my LLB dissertation at the Australian NationalUniversity and was completed while I was teaching in the university’s Faculty of Law. I wish to thank ProfessorHilary Charlesworth for her insightful comments on various drafts of the manuscript. 1    E.g  ., N. C. H. Dunbar, The Myth of Customary International Law,  1983 A  USTL .    Y.B.   I NT ’ L  L. 1; J. Patrick Kelly,  The Twilight of Customary International Law,  40 V   A  .    J.   I NT ’ L L. 449 (2000). 2  T HEODOR M ERON , H UMAN R  IGHTS AND H UMANITARIAN N ORMS AS C USTOMARY L  AW (1989). 3  Eduardo Jiménez de Aréchaga, Custom, in   C HANGE AND S TABILITY IN I NTERNATIONAL L  AW  -M  AKING  1, 2–3(Antonio Cassese & Joseph H. H. Weiler eds., 1988) [hereinafter C HANGE AND S TABILITY  ]; W. Michael Reisman, The Cult of Custom in the Late 20th Century  , 17 C  AL .    W.   I NT ’ L  L.J. 133 (1987). 4  I NTERNATIONAL C OURT OF  J USTICE S TATUTE  Art. 38(1)(b) [hereinafter ICJ S TATUTE ]. 5   North Sea Continental Shelf (FRG/Den.; FRG/Neth.), 1969 ICJ R  EP . 3, 44 (Feb. 20). 6  R  ESTATEMENT (T HIRD )  OF THE F OREIGN R  ELATIONS L  AW OF THE U NITED S TATES  §102(2) (1987) [hereinafterR  ESTATEMENT ]; I  AN B ROWNLIE ,   P RINCIPLES OF P UBLIC I NTERNATIONAL L  AW   4–11 (5th ed. 1998); M ICHAEL B  YERS ,C USTOM ,   P OWER  ,  AND THE P OWER OF R  ULES  130 (1999); A  NTHONY  A.   D’A  MATO , T HE C ONCEPT OF C USTOM IN I NTERNATIONAL L  AW   49 (1971) (citing F RANÇOIS G ÉNY  ,   M ÉTHODE D ’ INTERPRÉTATION ET SOURCES EN DROIT PRIVÉPOSITIF  §110 (1899)). 7  D’A  MATO , supra   note 6, at 89–90, 160. This distinction has been criticized by many commentators, who includecertain statements as forms of state practice. R  ESTATEMENT , supra   note 6, §102; B ROWNLIE , supra   note 6, at 5–6;Michael Akehurst, Custom as a Source of International Law  , 1974–75 B RIT .    Y.B.   I NT ’ L L. 1, 2, 35. The distinction is alsoimpliedly inconsistent with some case law of the Court. Fisheries Jurisdiction (UK v. Ice.), Merits, 1974 ICJ R  EP .3, 47, 56–58, 81–88, 119–20, 135, 161 (July 25); North Sea Continental Shelf, 1969   ICJ R  EP . at 4, 32–33, 47, 53. 8  D’A  MATO , supra   note 6, at 74–75.757 TRADITIONAL AND MODERN APPROACHES TO CUSTOMARY INTERNATIONAL LAW: A RECONCILIATION By Anthea Elizabeth Roberts  *  I.   T HE P ROBLEM OF T RADITIONAL AND M ODERN C USTOM The demise of custom as a source of international law has been widely forecasted. 1  Thisis because both the nature and the relative importance of custom’s constituent elements arecontentious. At the same time, custom has become an increasingly significant source of law in important areas such as human rights obligations. 2  Codification conventions, academiccommentary, and the case law of the International Court of Justice (the Court) have alsocontributed to a contemporary resurrection of custom. 3  These developments have resultedin two apparently opposing approaches, which I term “traditional custom” and “moderncustom.” The renaissance of custom requires the articulation of a coherent theory that canaccommodate its classic foundations and contemporary developments. This article seeks toprovide an enriched theoretical account of custom that incorporates both the traditionaland the modern approaches rather than advocating one approach over the other. The Statute of the International Court of Justice describes custom as “evidence of a gen-eral practice accepted as law.” 4  Custom is generally considered to have two elements: statepractice and opinio juris  . 5  State practice refers to general and consistent practice by states, while opinio juris   means that the practice is followed out of a belief of legal obligation. 6  Thisdistinction is problematic because it is difficult to determine what states believe as opposedto what they say. Whether treaties and declarations constitute state practice or opinio juris  is also controversial. For the sake of clarity, this article adopts Anthony D’Amato’s distinc-tion between action (state practice) and statements ( opinio juris  ). 7  Thus, actions can formcustom only if accompanied by an articulation of the legality of the action. 8   Opinio juris   758 THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW  [Vol. 95:757 9   Id.  at 35–39; Akehurst, supra   note 7, at 36–37. 10   Cf  . D’A  MATO , supra   note 6, at 89 (arguing that treaties are actions). But see   Akehurst, supra   note 7, at 3, 43(criticizing D’Amato for inconsistency). 11    E.g  ., Ted Stein, Remarks [on customs and treaties], in   C HANGE AND S TABILITY  , supra   note 3, at 12, 13. 12  North Sea Continental Shelf, 1969   ICJ R  EP . at 44; R  ESTATEMENT ,  supra   note 6, §102(2). 13  North Sea Continental Shelf, 1969 ICJ R  EP . at 44; Right of Passage over Indian Territory (Port. v. India),Merits, 1960 ICJ R  EP . 6, 42–43 (Apr. 12); Asylum (Colom./Peru), 1950 ICJ R  EP . 266, 276–77 (Nov. 20); S.S. “Lotus”(Fr. v. Turk.), 1927 PCIJ (ser. A) No. 10, at 28 (Sept. 7). 14  The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 686 (1900); J  AMES B RIERLY  , T HE L  AW OF N  ATIONS  62 (6th ed. 1963). 15  Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary in the Gulf of Maine Area (Can. v. U.S.), 1984 ICJ R  EP . 246, 299 (Oct.12); O SCAR S CHACHTER  , I NTERNATIONAL L  AW IN T HEORY AND P RACTICE  35–36 (1991); G EORG S CHWARZENBERGER  ,T HE I NDUCTIVE  A  PPROACH TO I NTERNATIONAL L  AW   33 (1965); Georg Schwarzenberger, The Inductive Approach to International Law,  60 H  ARV  .   L.   R  EV  . 539, 566–70 (1947). 16  S.S. “Lotus,” 1927 PCIJ (ser. A) No. 10, at 18, 29; see also   Nottebohm (Liech. v. Guat.), Second Phase, 1955 ICJR  EP . 4, 22 (Apr. 6); S.S. Wimbledon, 1923 PCIJ (ser. A) No. 1, at 25 (Aug. 17). 17  Hiram Chodosh, Neither Treaty nor Custom: The Emergence of Declarative International Law  , 26 T EX .   I NT ’ L  L.J. 87,102 n.70 (1991). 18  Bruno Simma & Philip Alston, The Sources of Human Rights Law: Custom,  Jus Cogens, and General Principles  ,1988–89 A  USTL .    Y.B.   I NT ’ L  L. 82. 19  Bin Cheng, United Nations Resolutions on Outer Space: ‘Instant’ International Customary Law?   5 I NDIAN  J.   I NT ’ L  L.23 (1965), reprinted in   I NTERNATIONAL L  AW  :   T EACHING AND P RACTICE  237 (Bin Cheng ed., 1982). 20  North Sea Continental Shelf, 1969 ICJ R  EP . at 44; Eduardo Jiménez de Aréchaga, Remarks [on generalprinciples and General Assembly resolutions], in   C HANGE AND S TABILITY  , supra   note 3, at 48. 21  Akehurst, supra   note 7, at 6–7; Jonathan I. Charney, Universal International Law,  87 AJIL 529, 544–45 (1993). 22  Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicar. v. U.S.), Merits, 1986 ICJ R  EP . 14 (June27) [hereinafter Nicaragua  ]; see also   Western Sahara, Advisory Opinion, 1975 ICJ R  EP . 12, 30–37 (Oct. 16); LegalConsequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa) Notwith-standing Security Council Resolution 276 (1970), Advisory Opinion, 1971 ICJ R  EP . 16, 31–32 (June 21) [herein-after Namibia Advisory Opinion]. 23    E.g  ., Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation AmongStates in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Res. 2625, UN GAOR, 25th Sess., Supp. No. 28, concerns statements of belief rather than actual beliefs. 9  Further, treaties and declarationsrepresent opinio juris   because they are statements about the legality of action, rather thanexamples of that action. 10  As will be demonstrated below, traditional custom and moderncustom are generally assumed to be alternatives because the former emphasizes state prac-tice, whereas the latter emphasizes opinio juris  . 11   What I have termed traditional custom results from general and consistent practice fol-lowed by states from a sense of legal obligation. 12  It focuses primarily on state practice in theform of interstate interaction and acquiescence. Opinio juris   is a secondary considerationinvoked to distinguish between legal and nonlegal obligations. 13  Traditional custom is evolu-tionary  14  and is identified through an inductive   process in which a general custom is derivedfrom specific instances of state practice. 15  This approach is evident in S.S. Lotus  , 16  where thePermanent Court of International Justice inferred a general custom about objectiveterritorial jurisdiction over ships on the high seas from previous instances of state action andacquiescence. 17 By contrast, modern custom is derived by a deductive   process that begins with general state-ments of rules rather than particular instances of practice. 18  This approach emphasizes opinio  juris   rather than state practice because it relies primarily on statements rather than actions. 19 Modern custom can develop quickly because it is deduced from multilateral treaties anddeclarations by international fora such as the General Assembly, which can declare existingcustoms, crystallize emerging customs, and generate new customs. 20  Whether these textsbecome custom depends on factors such as whether they are phrased in declaratory terms,supported by a widespread and representative body of states, and confirmed by state prac-tice. 21  A good example of the deductive approach is the Merits decision in Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua  . 22  The Court paid lip service to the traditionaltest for custom but derived customs of non-use of force and nonintervention from state-ments such as General Assembly resolutions. 23  The Court did not make a serious inquiry into  2001] TRADITIONAL AND MODERN APPROACHES TO CUSTOMARY INTERNATIONAL LAW  759 at 121, UN Doc. A/8028 (1970); Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, Final Act, Aug. 1, 1975, 73D EP ’ T S T .   B ULL . 323 (1975), reprinted in   14 ILM 1292 (1975) [hereinafter Helsinki Accord]. 24   Nicaragua  , 1986 ICJ R  EP . at 98, para. 186. 25  Georges Abi-Saab, Remarks [on custom and treaties], in   C HANGE AND S TABILITY  , supra   note 3, at 9; LouisHenkin, Human Rights and State “Sovereignty  ,” 25 G  A  .    J.   I NT ’ L  L. 37 (1995/96); Simma & Alston, supra   note 18, at 90; Ted Stein,  The Approach of a Different Drummer: The Principle of the Persistent Objector in International Law  , 26 H  ARV  .I NT ’ L  L.J. 457, 457 (1985). 26  Consider, for example, the strong and conflicting responses to the Nicaragua   case. Symposium, Appraisals of the ICJ’s Decision:   Nicaragua v. United States (Merits)  , 81 AJIL 77 (1987). 27  David Fidler, Challenging the Classical Concept of Custom  , 1996 G ER  .    Y.B.   I NT ’ L  L. 198, 216–31. 28  Charney, supra   note 21, at 543. 29  M ERON , supra   note 2; Lori Bruun, Beyond the 1948 Convention—Emerging Principles of Genocide in Customary International Law, 17 M D .    J.   I NT ’ L L.   &   T RADE  193, 216–17 (1993); Richard B. Lillich, The Growing Importance of Customary International Human Rights Law  , 25 G  A  .    J.   I NT ’ L &   C OMP .   L. 1, 8 (1995/96). 30  Reisman, supra   note 3, at 135. 31  Arthur A. Weisburd, Customary International Law: The Problem of Treaties  , 21 V   AND .    J.   T RANSNAT ’ L L. 1 (1988)[hereinafter Weisburd, Customary IL  ]. For further discussion, see Anthony A. D’Amato, Custom and Treaty: A Response to Professor Arthur A. Weisburd  , 21 V   AND .    J.   T RANSNAT ’ L  L. 459 (1988) [hereinafter D’Amato, Response  ]; Arthur A. Weisburd, A Reply to Professor Anthony A. D’Amato  , id  . at 473; Anthony A. D’Amato, A Brief Rejoinder,id.  at 489. 32  Kelly, supra   note 1, at 451. 33  Anthony A. D’Amato, Trashing Customary International Law  , 81 AJIL 101 (1987). 34  Robert Y. Jennings, The Identification of International Law, in   I NTERNATIONAL L  AW  , supra   note 19, at 3, 5; see also  North Sea Continental Shelf (FRG/Den.; FRG/Neth.), 1969   ICJ R  EP . 3, 224 (Feb. 20) (Sørensen, J. ad hoc  ,dissenting); Simma & Alston, supra   note 18, at 83. state practice, holding that it was sufficient for conduct to be generally consistent with state-ments of rules, provided that instances of inconsistent practice had been treated as breachesof the rule concerned rather than as generating a new rule. 24  The tests and justifications for traditional and modern custom appear to differ becausethe former develops slowly through state practice, while the latter can arise rapidly basedon opinio juris  . 25  This difference has spurred considerable discussion over two related issues.First, the legitimacy of traditional and modern custom has been debated at length. 26  DavidFidler characterizes the various approaches to this issue as the dinosaur, dynamo, and dan-gerous perspectives. 27  The dinosaur approach focuses on traditional custom and argues that massive changes in the international system have rendered it an anachronism. For example, Jonathan Charney claims that the increasing number and diversity of states, as well as theemergence of global problems that are addressed in international fora, makes traditionalcustom an inappropriate means for developing law. 28  The dynamo perspective concentrateson modern custom and embraces it as a progressive source of law that can respond to moralissues and global challenges. For example, Theodor Meron, Richard Lillich, and Lori Bruunargue that modern custom based on declarations by international fora provides animportant source of law for human rights obligations. 29  Finally, the dangerous perspective views modern custom as a departure from the traditional approach that has created anopportunity for legal and political abuse. Thus, Michael Reisman characterizes the increaseddependence on custom as a “great leap backwards” designed to serve the interests of power-ful states. 30  Similarly, Arthur Weisburd holds that modern custom often lacks the legitimacy of state consent because it is formed despite little, or conflicting, state practice. 31 Second, the divergence between traditional and modern custom has been criticized asundermining the integrity of custom as a source of law. Patrick Kelly argues that custom isan indeterminate and malleable source of law, simply a “matter of taste.” 32  According toD’Amato, the modern approach trashes the theoretical foundations of custom by invertingthe traditional priority of state practice over opinio juris  . 33  Sir Robert Jennings insists that “most of what we perversely persist in calling customary international law is not only not  customary law: it does not even faintly resemble a customary law.” 34  The phrases “modern,”  760 THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW  [Vol. 95:757 35  Curtis A. Bradley & Jack L. Goldsmith, Customary International Law as Federal Common Law: A Critique of the Modern Position  , 110 H  ARV  .   L.   R  EV  . 815, 838 (1997); Kelly, supra   note 1, at 454 n.20, 484. 36  Stein, supra   note 11, at 12. 37  Bin Cheng, in   I NTERNATIONAL L  AW  , supra   note 19, at 249. 38  Hilary C. M. Charlesworth, Customary International Law and the   Nicaragua Case  , 1984–87    A  USTL .    Y.B.   I NT ’ L  L. 1. 39  Simma & Alston, supra   note 18, at 88, 96. 40   Id.  at 102–06; see also   ICJ S TATUTE  Art. 38(1)(c). 41  Daniel Bodansky, Customary (and Not So Customary) International Environmental Law  , 3 I ND .    J.   G LOBAL L EGAL S TUD . 105, 116–19 (1995); Charney, supra   note 21, at 543, 546–47; Chodosh, supra   note 17. 42  Frederic L. Kirgis, Jr., Custom on a Sliding Scale  , 81 AJIL   146 (1987); John Tasioulas, In Defence of Relative Normativity: Communitarian Values and the   Nicaragua Case  , 16 O XFORD  J.   L EGAL S TUD . 85 (1996). 43  Kirgis, supra   note 42, at 149. 44  Simma & Alston, supra   note 18, at 83. 45  For an explanation of the phrases “apology for power” and “utopian and unachievable,” see M  ARTTI K  OSKENNIEMI ,F ROM  A  POLOGY TO U TOPIA  :   T HE S TRUCTURE OF I NTERNATIONAL L EGAL  A  RGUMENT  2 (1989). 46  R  ONALD D  WORKIN ,   L  AW  ’ S E MPIRE  (1986); J OHN R   AWLS ,    A    T HEORY OF  J USTICE  20 (1972). “new,” 35  “contemporary,” 36  and “instant” 37  custom appear inherently contradictory and ob-scure the real basis for forming this law. Hilary Charlesworth contends that modern customcan be rationalized only by dispensing with the traditional rhetoric of custom. 38  BrunoSimma and Philip Alston argue that the modern approach has created an “identity crisis” 39 for custom and would be better understood as a general principle of international law. 40 Likewise, Charney, Daniel Bodansky, and Hiram Chodosh conclude that modern customis really a new species of universal declaratory law because it is based on authoritativestatements about practice rather than observable regularities of behavior. 41 Both the legitimacy and the integrity of traditional and modern custom have receivedconsiderable attention and polarized positions are evident. However, few commentatorshave transcended these debates by attempting to provide an overall theory of custom.Frederic Kirgis rationalizes the divergence in custom by analyzing the requirements of statepractice and opinio juris   on a sliding scale. 42  At one end, highly consistent state practice canestablish a customary rule without requiring opinio juris  . However, as the frequency andconsistency of state practice decline, a stronger showing of opinio juris   will be required. Kirgisargues that the exact trade-off between state practice and opinio juris   will depend on theimportance of the activity in question and the reasonableness of the rule involved. 43  Simmaand Alston claim that this approach reinterprets the concept of custom so as to produce the“right” answers. 44  However, John Tasioulas argues that the sliding scale can be rationalizedon the basis of Ronald Dworkin’s interpretive theory of law, which balances a descriptionof what the law has been with normative considerations about what the law should be. Thisperspective shows why the Court may be less exacting in requiring state practice and opinio  juris   in cases that deal with important moral issues.This article builds on the work of Kirgis and Tasioulas and offers a defense of custom by seeking to reconcile the traditional and modern approaches. Part II analyzes the com-peting values of descriptive accuracy and normative appeal that are used to justify inter-national law. These values characterize traditional and modern custom, respectively,because of their inductive and deductive methodologies and facilitative and moral content.Part III examines custom on a sliding scale and rejects this interpretive approach becauseit does not accurately describe the process of finding custom and would create customs that are apologies for power or utopian and unachievable. 45  Part IV presents an alternative vision of Dworkin’s interpretive theory of law applied to custom, which incorporates the justifications of descriptive accuracy and normative appeal and seeks to balance them in aRawlsian reflective equilibrium. 46  Part V outlines the advantages of the reflective interpre-tive approach over the sliding-scale methodology. Rearticulating the theoretical founda-
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