Neshan Gunasekera (left) and Alyn Ware (right)

Alyn Ware co-launches ‘LAW not War’ campaign for universal ICJ jurisdiction

News 30.10.2023

Alyn Ware, a 2009 Right Livelihood Laureate, is co-leading the international campaign “Legal Alternatives to War” (LAW not War), which was launched in New York on October 23. The campaign aims to enhance the use and universality of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as a mechanism for countries to peacefully resolve international disputes rather than resorting to armed conflict. The initiative is co-led by Neshan Gunasekera, the legacy holder for 2007 Laureate Christopher Weeramantry, among others.

The “Law not War” campaign traces its roots back to the late 1800s when the world’s first international tribunal was established. At the time, the tribunal’s founders were reluctant to relinquish national sovereignty and decided the court should only have voluntary jurisdiction.

This sentiment persisted through 1945 when the UN and the ICJ were founded to prevent future wars. Despite all 193 member states of the UN also being members of the ICJ, only 74 accept the court’s compulsory jurisdiction.

Ware and Gunasekera are determined to convince the remaining 119 member states to change their stance. They argue that mandating the application of international law, which includes the prohibition of war, would benefit all nations, emphasising that every nation should be equal and responsible under the law.

“At the national level, the law and courts are compulsory for all citizens within a country,” said Ware. “If someone commits a crime within a country, you don’t go to that person and say, ‘Well, do you want to go to court or not?’ It seems strange that at the international level, we make accountability voluntary.”

Convincing the remaining 119 UN member states to accept the ICJ’s jurisdiction will not be easy. Many countries are still reluctant to cede power to an international body, while others are sceptical about the ICJ’s ability to affect real change.

“People have, I think, a false impression of the International Court of Justice’s impact: they hear that it’s not compulsory jurisdiction, so they just dismiss it,” said Ware. “They don’t take the next step of thinking, ‘So how does it work? And is it effective?’ That’s what we’re bringing in as that next step.”

However, Ware is optimistic: “Nearly all UN member states already accept the ICJ’s jurisdiction on specific issues through treaty memberships, like the Genocide Convention, which gives the ICJ the power to settle disputes connected to that treaty.”

Current examples of the Genocide Convention in action include a case in which Gambia has taken Myanmar to the ICJ over allegations of genocide against the Rohingya people, an ethnic minority group. Ukraine has also brought Russia to the ICJ, alleging that Russia violated the Convention by falsely accusing Ukraine of genocide.

“It is definitely feasible to encourage nations to extend their adherence to ICJ jurisdiction for any and all conflicts unable to be resolved by other peaceful means,” said Ware.

One of the ways Ware, Gunasekera and the rest of the “LAW not War” team intend to educate state representatives on the ICJ’s effectiveness is by highlighting its successful track record. Namely, its ability to advance climate justice and resolve conflict peacefully.

“Today, it is recognised more and more by the younger generation … as a way to bring about climate litigation cases, which are mushrooming all over the place,” said Gunasekera.

A strong example, Gunasekera explained, unfolded when a group of Pacific Island students petitioned the government of Vanuatu to present their climate change concerns to the ICJ. Co-sponsored by 132 UN member states and adopted unanimously, the students’ bravery led the ICJ to issue an opinion on states’ obligations and responsibilities surrounding climate change in March 2023.

The “LAW not War” team also plans to educate member states, legislators, civil society organisations, influencers and the general public on the ICJ’s success in peacefully resolving conflict, something Ware believes is especially relevant today.

“We have seen a breakdown in the rule of law in international relations through catastrophic armed conflict like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and now the Hamas-Israel conflict,” said Ware. “What we’re setting out to do with this campaign is to reaffirm member states’ obligation to resolve their international conflicts through peaceful means using international law and legal process.”

While the campaign may face a lengthy 22-year journey, Ware and Gunasekera remain motivated to collaborate with activists across generations in pursuit of a more peaceful future.

“It’s open to anybody and everybody who wants to join the campaign,” said Ware. “We need individuals and organisations to bring as much as possible to this effort so that we can have a real momentum shift from a culture of violence to a culture of peace.”

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