Home > Action, Compassion, International > The International Law of Compassion

The International Law of Compassion

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The last post took a small step toward the realm of international law, and this post takes another step in that direction. International law, broadly defined, encompasses a full spectrum of agreements, treaties, conventions, resolutions, and decrees, all of which can be formal or informal, binding or non-binding. Some components of international law actually look like laws and come from legislative-like bodies like the United Nations. Others look like rules from regulatory agency-like bodies like the World Trade Organization. Other parts of international law are agreements between two or more sovereign states, or even between subnational entities. It is not uncommon for treaties to establish an administering body to adjudicate disputes arising under the treaty. International law thus can come from preexisting international bodies designed to make law, or it can arise from cross-border relationships.

Some Americans pay little attention to international law. They may see its systemic flaws as insurmountable, believe that international bodies should not bind domestic activity, or question the real motives behind international governing actions. Others, however, recognize the imperfections of international law as it stands today, but see international and global agreements as a worthwhile avenue for positive development. One powerful American, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, is a noted proponent of the applicability of foreign and international principles to American law and life and sometimes cites these principles in his judicial opinions. His opinion for the Court in the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), is a good example. In overturning Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986) and striking down a state sodomy statute, Justice Kennedy bolstered the decision to overturn the Bowers case (which upheld a state law that criminalized sodomy between consenting adults, in private, as applied to homosexuals)  by pointing to foreign and international authority contrary to the Bowers holding:

To the extent Bowers relied on values we share with a wider civilization, it should be noted that the reasoning and holding in Bowers have been rejected elsewhere. The European Court of Human Rights has followed not Bowers but its own decision in DudgeonUnited Kingdom. [Citing cases.] Other nations, too, have taken action consistent with an affirmation of the protected right of homosexual adults to engage in intimate, consensual conduct. [Citing amici curiae brief.] The right the petitioners seek in this case has been accepted as an integral part of human freedom in many other countries. There has been no showing that in this country the governmental interest in circumscribing personal choice is somehow more legitimate or urgent.

Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 576-77. In this example, Justice Kennedy is drawing on these sources to present a sense of global compassion.

Karen Armstrong is interested in compassion on a global scale as well. Armstrong is a British theologian who won a TED prize in 2008. In response, Armstrong, a former nun and current student of the major religions of the world, developed and issued her Charter for Compassion. The core of Armstrong’s thesis is that some version of the Golden Rule appears in all religions, and the root of this common core is a shared notion of compassion.

As presented, compassion tracks the discussion of passive and active virtues ongoing here. See supra. Compassion might sound like a baseline attitude or ethos, or a background sensibility to be recalled in convenient moments. For Armstrong and her supporters, however, there is an active element of compassion, which is something to be affirmatively practiced. Participating in a series of short presentations in support of the Charter at the Chautauqua Institution, Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswati emphasized the active nature of compassion:

Armstrong’s hope is that individuals around the world will read the Charter and add their names to its long list of signatories. See herehere, and here for more information.

One way that many people act out compassion is by making financial donations to causes they deem worthy of support. Contributing the monetary fruits of one’s labor can be a meaningful act and can offer the recipient flexibility to advance its mission. Briefly, if you are looking for worthy recipients for a financial donation during this season, consider supporting the documentary film To Them That’s Gone and the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.

Finally and undoubtedly, an element of compassion is passion. As the year and decade come to an end, many find time to reflect on their lives, the lives of those important to them, the loss of life, and passion for life. Few have both argued for and demonstrated passion for life like the late Jim Valvano. He delivered the most famous speech of his life, the keystone of his enduring legacy, at the ESPY Awards in 1993:

Merry Christmas and a happy homecoming to all.

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