What should we learn from knowing the UN Library’s most checked-out book?

Mark Kersten over at Justice in Conflict writes:

The most checked-out book was entitled Immunity of Heads of State and State Officials for International Crimes.

Then adds:

This isn’t exactly great news for proponents of international justice and, in particular, the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Weirdly, the UN Library sort of bragged about the book on Twitter – despite the institution’s mission to, you know, fight global impunity. As Hayes Brown rightly chirped: “…Guys. Why would you brag about this [-] this is not good.” There is a silver lining, though. Clearly diplomats are taking international criminal justice seriously and evidently some (rightfully, we should add) see it as threatening. Like it or not, the possibility of heads of state being prosecuted for international crimes is indelibly part of the world of diplomacy.

The institutionalist in me agrees.

Do we want to live in a world in which world leaders do not care about the rules, and therefore do not bother to check how to circumvent them? Or a world in which leaders respect the rules enough to invest in getting their way but within the rules?

I am reminded of a point my adviser David Laitin once made in his class on political culture — that rules by themselves are never final, but are constantly re-litigated and renegotiated during implementation. In other words, that at some level rules exist to define the acceptable scope of (re)negotiation over implementation.

At first this point may seem obvious. But you will be surprised how often rule-makers imagine they can legislate their way out of problems without giving any consideration to the political economy of implementation.


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