Professor Simon Chesterman on Asia’s Ambivalence Towards International Law

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  • 2014•10•27

    In this video, Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, joins UNU Rector David M. Malone to discuss the past, present and future of Asian involvement in international law.

    While the US and Europe have had strong influence on international legal architecture, Asia has so far played a minimal role in international organizations. One reason for this difference, Professor Chesterman explains, is the fact that the US and Europe have the ability to speak with one voice — the US through projection of its domestic legal regime, and Europe, more recently, through its expanding power and joint initiatives such as its work on human rights. But in Asia, even with established organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, there is no “meaningful regional organization” equivalent to the European Union and “no desire” of any Asian powers “to presume to speak for all of Asia”.

    Professor Chesterman points out that this gives rise to an interesting paradox: while Asian populations represent the majority of the world and one of the most economically dynamic regions, they play a minimal role in the creation and representation of law in the international arena. This, Professor Chesterman predicts, will be subject to change. Although Asia benefits largely from the security and stability provided by international rule of law, Asian underrepresentation in the security context (for example, the UN Security Council) is not likely to change soon.

    Nonetheless, one promising area is the global financial architecture, in which Asia is gaining increasing international recognition. As a result, the global financial system being governed by an American-led World Bank and a European-led International Monetary Fund seems likely to change according to the rising economic power of Asia.

    Regarding human rights, there is a “tendency to be very critical” of Asian human rights initiatives because they are seen as weaker than international standards. Despite the fact that the evolution of human rights in Asia will develop slower than in the international economic sense, “develop it will”, Professor Chesterman stresses.

    On the future of Asian participation in the international law and its configurations, Professor Chesterman highlights three possible scenarios. The first is the maintenance of the status quo, which is likely to remain persistent in areas such as Asia’s limited role in international security, but more likely to change in regard to economic law and human rights. Moving beyond the status quo involves the second and third scenarios: divergence and convergence. In the case of divergence, an alternate “Eastphalian” system would emerge that privileges economic activity over human rights. Convergence, however, is much more likely and would see Asian countries participating increasingly in global legal debates and working within international adjudication to achieve non-violent resolutions to disputes.