Debating the Sokovia Accords

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, Assistant Professor of Political Science California State University, Chico. He can be contacted through his faculty webpage at https://www.csuchico.edu/pols/people/tenure-line-faculty/irish-adam.shtml.

(Jason Halley/University Photographer)

International relations (IR) textbooks often relegate the topic of international law to a few pages or subsume it within the general topic of cooperation. Beyond defining the different sources of international law, little effort is made to compare those sources or connect international law to domestic laws. Moreover, international law tends to be discussed mostly in terms of treaties or framed as primarily an enforcement problem.  International law deserves more nuanced coverage than current introductory textbooks suggest.

To address this issue, I have developed a debate to promote critical analysis of international law’s varied sources. This debate is adaptable, scalable, and links well to IR issues. Best of all, it sparks student interest because it draws on a popular MARVEL movie—Captain America: Civil War

The storyline of Captain America: Civil War follows the creation of the Sokovia Accords as a response to the killing of civilians by superheroes.  States wrote the Sokovia Accords in order to monitor and, through the United Nations, regulate the activities of superpowered individuals. In the movie there are six scenes relevant to the Sokovia Accords.  Students can view the entire movie or use publicly available YouTube video clips to watch the relevant scenes: intro fight scene part 1 and part 2, grieving mother scene, initial presentation, first debate, second debate, and prison scene. A version of the Sokovia Accords text is available on the MCU fandom page.

I recommend introducing the debate after exploring topics like the treaty making process (i.e. negotiation, ratification, implementation, and compliance), the two-level game model of IR, the importance of ratification for legal obligation, or variations in the criteria to enter into force.  Students should be reminded that, under international law, failure to follow the accords is more likely to generate tort liability (requiring compensation) than a criminal prosecution. 

Two teams of students (~2-4 students per team) debate the following resolution:

Resolved: The Sokovia Accords are the best legal instrument to regulate the use of force by superheroes.

The remainder of the students in the class serve as judges. Before the debate, each team should submit a short summary of its arguments to the instructor and judges. The debate itself is divided up into five sections:

  1. Opening Statements. Debaters sit in front of the class with their team. Flip a coin to determine which team starts and after Rebuttal Planning reverse the order. If possible, meet with student teams before to discuss rhetorical techniques, dividing up the speaking, and responding to judges.
  2. Questioning by Judges. Judges ask questions of each team. In classes leading up to the debate draw attention to how arguments are questioned.
  3. Rebuttal Planning & Judges’ Conference. Each team is excused to the hallway to plan.  Ask the judges: Which arguments are they most interested in? Which are most/least compelling? How they plan to push each team during the next phase?
  4. Rebuttals and Questioning. Each team rebuts arguments and answers questions. Judges may interrupt to ask for clarification or questions.
  5. Closing Statements & In-class Debrief. Each team makes an uninterrupted closing statement. Time permitting, de-brief by focusing on the experience rather than arguments. What did students think was the most challenging aspect of the debate? When are debates most effective? What did they most like about the activity? Then applaud the efforts of the debate teams and remind the judges to send in their rulings before the next class. 

Debating the Sokovia Accords will get students to compare the different sources of international law and re-engage with previously covered topics.  To promote further investigation of the connection to domestic laws, tell students that the United States has yet to ratify the Accords. This small change generates questions about the interaction of domestic laws and rights with international treaties seeking to establish treatment standards (for example, the Sokovia Accords allow for indefinite detention). 

If students are able to review additional material, a recent article by Verdier and Voeten (2015) provides an explanation for customary international law not based on reciprocity, which can be used to examine the effects of violating an international law on the community. Pevehouse and Goldstein’s (2017) textbook provides a basic overview of some alternatives to treaty law on pages 216-217. Finally, to create a courtroom feel to the debate, abridged versions of cases can be added on custom (The Paquete Habana, Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons), general principles (Italy (Gentini) v. Venezuela, Prosecutor v. Tradic, and Corfu Channel Case), jus cogens rules (Roper v. Simmons, Prosecutor v. Furundžija), or even cases concerning the state responsibility (US (Chattin) v. Mexico, Mexico (Mallen) v. US).

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