by Barbara Swatt Engstrom
Where to begin with a review of this spring’s American Society of International Law conference? Maybe with how hard it is to choose just one program to attend for any given time slot when two others look equally interesting; or the keynote speech that made major national news; or how the panelists engage in real debate on issues; or maybe how nice it is to be in Washington D.C. in the springtime?
Well, it turns out that springtime in D.C. was a lot like springtime in Seattle. Cold and rainy. Maybe it was the all the snow they got this winter, but the cherry blossoms weren’t quite there yet. In the long run, I didn’t have much time for wandering around among the cherry blossoms anyway because the conference schedule was packed.
The keynote address was by Harold Koh, former dean of Yale law school, now Legal Advisor for the State Department and proud wearer of a Prince Valiant hairstyle. In his address, which was both funny and substantive, he spoke about what his position as legal advisor entails, what the strategic vision of the State Department’s Legal Affairs office is under Hilary Clinton and the international legal obstacles currently facing the administration. The hot button issue in the speech was the increased use of drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan by the Obama administration. Critics of the use of drones contend that they likely violate international humanitarian law and human rights law. Until the ASIL speech, the administration had not yet outlined the legal justification for the use of drones in any sort of detail. In the post speech Q & A, audience members pushed back at the rationale for the legal justifications. The speech and the discussion of drone strikes caused a stir in the national media and were covered by NPR the next morning. I must say it was pretty cool to wake up to a story on Morning Edition about the speech I’d heard the night before.
The sessions themselves were excellent. I always love going to a conference and learning something I’m able to apply directly to my work. One presenter used an example of the development of international restrictions on emissions during the Kyoto protocol negotiations to demonstrate how international law shapes domestic law. While the U.S. balked at the emissions regulations and did not sign on to the Kyoto protocol, the EU (the presenter analogized EU law to domestic law) went ahead and created their own emissions trading scheme (ETS). One of the first questions that I got when I came back dealt with finding information on the suit the Air Transport Association (a US trade association) and several U.S. airlines filed with regard to the EU ETS emissions standards placed on airlines flying into Europe. (Guess international law issues will manage to come full circle back to the U.S. whether we want to deal with them directly or not.)
The other interesting thing about this conference was that many of the panelists were very passionate about the issues being discussed. In a session about setting up a state department commission to resolve suits on Nazi looted art, the discussion got heated. One of the panelists, a strident supporter of the commission who came from a government/public service background, fiercely criticized another panelist, an attorney, for his lack of support for the panel. The attorney, who has been litigating these types of cases on the side of the families trying to recover the art for 25 years, countered the idealistic vision of the panelist with the reality of how litigation involving museums actually unfolds. It was truly fascinating to see the issue through these two very different lenses.
Another interesting session was the discussion of making international legal education accessible to people of all stations worldwide. The UN has launched the United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law, which aims to promote international legal research and education. The UN AVL historic archives focuses on various important treaties, declarations and statutes with extensive written material and audiovisual links for each particular instrument.
I have only recently started doing more foreign and international law research, so I am relatively new to many of the issues that were presented. Much of the discussion was at a level that presumed a background and depth of knowledge that I don’t quite have, but I came away feeling like I have a much better understanding of so many of the emerging issues now. It was like an immersion class in international law. I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in international law consider attending ASIL in the future. It is an unusual conference in that it is a mix of legal practitioners, academics, government attorneys and representative, students, librarians, and persons working for NGOs. This diverse blend of viewpoints makes for a very compelling conference.