Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the celebrations marking 100 years of the German Society of International Law

16.03.2017 - Speech

– Translation of advance text –

Professor Nolte,
Esteemed members of the German Society of International Law,
Honoured guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

“Many people, including academic and even legal experts, today see international law as a pile of rubble and empty delusion.”

Those aren’t my words – and the speaker wasn’t describing the world today.

That was the start of an impassioned plea by one of your society’s founders, Moritz Liepmann, in defence of international law.

And it was written a hundred years ago.

That was a time when the First World War was still wreaking its terrible havoc.

It was a time when the peaceful European order had just violently collapsed at the drop of a hat.

It was before US President Woodrow Wilson came up with his famous fourteen points.

He was a pretty courageous avant-garde, your predecessor.

And you certainly have my most heartfelt congratulations on your anniversary. I am delighted to have you here at the Federal Foreign Office today.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me come back to that description I quoted at the start, calling international law a “pile of rubble”. A hundred years after your society was founded, can we simply reject such a description out of hand? Do we not have to seriously ask ourselves, even today, what role and what status international law has in our complex and conflict-ridden world?

You, esteemed ladies and gentlemen, may have clear positions on that as members of the Society of International Law, and I don’t doubt they will be highly nuanced positions, as we expect from our legal experts.

You may even, as professors in various fields of international law, be a little biased on this point...

I, in contrast, am no lawyer, as you know. I am therefore standing on very thin ice in trying to tell you, the experts, about the significance of international law. I want to give it a go nonetheless and answer the question as a politician.

I’ll tell you my conclusion right from the start:

It is my firm conviction that international law is not a “pile of rubble”. It is in fact a complex construction in which building work is constantly ongoing. Sometimes a new floor is added. Sometimes a load-bearing wall is damaged, whether accidentally or completely deliberately.

International law has a lot of builders. And there is a constant need for engineers to assess the building work. I know people say judex non calculat – lawyers and maths don’t mix. And actually engineers need to be very good at maths.

But as I see it, ladies and gentlemen, you are international law’s structural engineers. Without you, the edifice of international law would quickly become a pile of rubble.

We would certainly discover the cracks in the foundations far too late. That’s why I am extremely glad there is such close exchange between you and the Federal Foreign Office.

For us, for the federal government, it is essential to strengthen that edifice, international law, as a key structural element of international relations.

Our openness, our proliferation of global ties, means that Germany is exposed in many ways. We benefit more than almost any other country from our involvement in globalisation.

The other side of the coin is, however, that we are vulnerable when the rules are called into question – when isolationism or erratic conduct start to take over. That is why we depend on having clear, reliable rules governing the political and economic interaction of states and institutions.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we – Germany – are particularly committed to not only safeguarding but also expanding international law.

We are not naive on this score. And just to be clear, international law today does not look like it would win a prize for architecture. It has a couple of crooked walls, and the roof is sure to leak in places.

And a biting wind howls around the eaves of international law.

Though all states have indeed pledged themselves to international law – to the Charter of the United Nations, as a global regulatory framework – we must nonetheless admit that the world order established after 1945 is no longer accepted without question by all states.

Global balances are shifting, economically of course, and increasingly politically too. This is clearly discernible. I see it as Foreign Minister now too; I saw it at the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Bonn last month, for example, where China, India, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia were among those at the table and, naturally, clearly articulated their perspectives as well.

In the face of this recalibration of the world, no nation will be able to simply insist on outdated prerogatives.

The United Nations have once again become more of a focal point for conflicting interests and consequently for rival value systems and concepts of order.

This has gone so far that some people – I’m not revealing any secrets here – declare the Western system of values obsolete. Some believe “Western values” means double standards and undeclared interests, and it seems they’re not always entirely mistaken.

Nevertheless, we have to counter that trend, by credibly disproving that belief through our own policies, obviously – for instance, by upholding our democratic values of freedom of speech and assembly even when we don’t like all the things that are said at assemblies in our country.

We need to be clear on this:

Though called “Western”, these values are not anchored in geography; they are themselves a political, cultural and intellectual anchor.

And our values are enshrined in internationally agreed human rights regulations.

I am sure that those suffering human rights violations would not say, “Oh, but they’re Western concepts, those human rights; I don’t want them.”


Ladies and gentlemen,

We should not be fooled by these negative trends. On the contrary, they should motivate us to work with our partners to advocate greater legal regulation of international relations.

For small countries in particular, but also for medium-sized countries like Germany, international law is an elementary precondition for equal participation in international relations. In a world order based purely on unbridled power and the exercise of that power, the winner will be whoever is the strongest – whoever exercises power the most ruthlessly.

International law counteracts that by taking a fundamentally different approach, based on the sovereign equality of states. That places limitations on capricious power politics.

And international law, just like any other legal norm, does not cease to apply or lose significance if it is violated. On the contrary, the dreadful violations of international humanitarian law in the Syrian civil war have demonstrated very forcefully how vital it is to uphold norms.

And even though we were unable to prevent those violations, we are at least helping to raise awareness of them.

Germany is therefore supporting the international mechanism to investigate serious human rights violations and other crimes under international law in Syria.

And those investigations are intended to be used in court at some later point, since a lasting peace settlement simply cannot be built on unprosecuted crimes.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Strengthening international law is a fundamental tenet of German foreign policy, and it is more relevant than ever. We are therefore doing what we can to bolster international law, both in political and in practical terms.

This means building our relations with other states on foundations of jointly agreed rules. That is the case for our relations with other EU countries anyway, but it goes much further than that: Germany has signed and ratified more than 6500 international treaties. We will continue to build that close network of ties.

We lend our support to the kind of instruments that foster peaceful settlement of conflicts, particularly international courts.

Two examples are the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, with which we have a special affinity as it is based in Hamburg.

We call on all parties, large states and those not so large, to recognise and implement the decisions of the courts and the binding jurisdiction of arbitration bodies.

We work to support the International Criminal Court. Germany was not only very active in setting up the ICC, but is also its second-largest financial contributor. And at the political level, we naturally enter into dialogue about the Court’s value, especially with those states which have recently revealed doubts on that score.

International courts, commissions of inquiry and reports by relevant experts – these instruments cannot replace political interaction between states. But they can help channel it into rules-based forms and thereby increase the chances of finding peaceful solutions.

I would therefore like to thank all your members who have made themselves available, now or in the past, to serve as judges at international courts. My thanks go particularly to a guest of honour here today, namely Professor Buergenthal.

Professor Buergenthal,

You have dedicated yourself to reinforcing international law, including more than a decade’s service on the bench of the International Court of Justice.

Let me take this opportunity to thank you most sincerely in person.

I also want to say that I personally find it extremely moving that, after everything our country, everything Germany did to you and your family seventy-odd years ago, you chose to dedicate your labours and your energies to protecting human rights. You let yourself be guided not by hatred and vengeance but by your work ethic and by your belief in doing the right thing. Thank you very much indeed.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Our focus cannot be solely on reinforcing the instruments of international law or on increasing the quantity of international norms.

It is important that international relations be subject to legal regulation, but we mustn’t be satisfied with the mere fact that international rules exist.

We have to strive to make those rules actually reflect our values. We have to see international law as a tool for making globalisation fair.

Let me give you an example from the negotiations on CETA, the free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.

The point was not simply to set up any old legal framework to regulate trade between these two markets. The point was to establish a framework for free trade that contains clear standards to protect employees, consumers and the environment.

In CETA, we have managed to create a means of shaping globalisation into something other than a simple game of free trade versus consumer protection.

That is not only good for consumers in Europe and Canada; it also sends a clear message to other international trading partners, to the United States and to China.

The message is that trade agreements with Europe are possible when our standards are suitably respected.

That strong focus on the actual contents, ladies and gentlemen, is what should guide us in future.

Another example of a really good international agreement on the global scale is the Paris Agreement on climate change.

I still vividly remember the discussions about a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, from my time as environment minister. Those were difficult discussions. Part of the reason was that emerging economies and developing countries were no longer prepared to simply consent to limits on CO2 emissions, seeing such restrictions as obstacles to their own growth.

This makes it all the more important that we did manage to negotiate a global climate change agreement amid the upheaval of a changing world. The agreement has not saved the earth’s climate, but we do now have an international framework that sets out the next steps to be taken.

Finally, Agenda 2030 gives us an international agreement – not an international treaty, but still a joint decision by all UN members – that enables us to work for fairer globalisation. It is an agreement built on a global consensus.

We want to make things fair when it comes to migration too. This is about establishing the conditions for controlled immigration and combating human trafficking and exploitation. That means immigration which benefits the countries of origin and destination as well as the migrants themselves. We are discussing this intensively in the United Nations context. There is going to be an international conference on the subject in late 2018.

So we do have the power to create norms and standards. Sure, in this example we are talking about ‘soft law’ rather than enforceable claims, but the point is to establish international norms in order to achieve greater fairness and equality. Greater equality is a good compass not only for a society’s domestic peace but for global peace too.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Your areas of legal expertise, public and private international law, intersect directly with what we do as politicians. International law, as I see it at least, is therefore never purely technical or even apolitical. It has a bearing on the political sphere of international relations like no other field of law.

That means it is also more exposed to political developments than any other field of law. Precisely because we are living through a period of global power shifts, we have to place more importance than ever on the regulatory power of law – not naively, but resolutely, keeping our interests and values firmly in sight.

And I hope that in future – at least for the next hundred years – we can continue to rely on you, the members of the German Society of International Law.

We will rely on you as advisers, maybe even as legal representatives, and certainly as critical observers and commentators.

Our shared objective should be to make sure that, a hundred years from now, describing international law as a “pile of rubble” is still no more than empty delusion itself.

I wish you all a good and fruitful centenary meeting.

Thank you.

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