International law is increasingly becoming important in today’s world because it impacts the relationship between people, countries, regions, and companies. International Law impacts many areas such as:
- Human rights,
- The movement of people,
- The environment, and much more.
The benefit of international law allows the world to progress to working harmoniously and efficiently, where everyone is operating in mutual respect. In addition, international law can positively impact national law. International law comes from a variety of sources such as treaties, customs, and general principles. The items can be enforced through international courts and sanctions.
The major cons of international law are that it can be difficult to enforce, the influence of strong countries, and the lack of true representation for countries. Nevertheless, international law will remain a key instrument now and in the future for achieving collaboration, safety, and peace in the international system.
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What is the Definition of International Law?
International law is an area of law that describes how rules and principles govern the relationships between countries, territories, and other international actors such as people, businesses, and intergovernmental agencies (e.g., the United Nations and the World Trade Organization). International law covers this relationship on all planes of reality, including air, land, sea, and now space.
This is important because the “rule of law” is an essential component of the international system, according to the book, “Recognition in International Law” by Hersch Lauterpacht. The definition of international law and its effect on the international system can be traced to the history of international law.
When Did International Law Begin?
No one can say for certain when international law began because as long as humans have been interacting with each other across distances, there has been a set of rules and principles that govern their interactions. This is evident in Nile Valley civilization, where different civilizations in the Upper and Lower Nile Valley began trading and fighting with each other.
Despite having very ancient roots some of the modern aspects of international law can be traced to:
- International treaties such as the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961 – beginning of the concept of sovereignty for a country and establishing rules governing diplomatic relations between countries respectively;
- Establishment of the International Court of Justice in 1945 – the court of the United Nations that hears legal disputes between countries and provides legal opinions on legal questions; and
- Creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 – to regulate international trade across participating countries
International law continued to be developed by various sources such as treaties, customs, and principles.
Examples of International Laws
Many international laws govern international relations and impact our daily lives. They cover a variety of subjects including human rights, climate, trade, and war.
Civil and Human Rights International Laws
With the involvement of people, there may not be a need for international law because laws govern the behavior of people. Therefore, respecting the rights of individuals are needed. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, is an example of a very important international human rights law. This law has been credited for the creation of more than 70 human rights treaties. It lays down the importance that everyone is born free, the right to assemble peacefully, the right to be free from torture, and many others.
Other important human rights laws include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
International Environmental Laws
Due to the movement of people and the growth of multinational corporations, environments can be negatively impacted. Environmental laws help address the difficulties that may be posed by climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. The Paris Agreement is a well-known international environmental law that aims to keep the rise in mean global temperature below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels, and limit the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F). While these temperatures are believed to be ineffective by some experts, it is a goal that some believe will help protect the Earth. Other important climate related agreements include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.
International Trade Law
Humans have participated in trade since the Before Common Era. International trade laws regulate the flow of goods and services across borders. The World Trade Organization is an international governmental organization that governs trade relations between countries. Countries enter into free trade agreements that allow for goods to enter and exit a country with no or minimal barriers. Examples of international trade laws include the USCMA, a free trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico; the European Union’s Single Market Act allows for the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people; and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, the second largest free trade area in the world.
War and Peace
As people and companies interact across borders, history has shown that conflict is inevitable. International laws were created to govern the use of force by countries. The United Nations Charter is the main international agreement that prohibits the use of force except in self-defense or with the authorization of the United Nations Security Council. Other important international laws on war and peace include the Geneva Convention which provides rights for civilians and prisoners of war.
The scope of international law is constantly evolving. While many international laws are written down, some international laws are not written down and come from local customs and general principles.
What Sources Develop International Law?
Throughout the years, International law has been enshrined through various conventions, treaties, and standards. Enshrinement of international laws ensures that the rights and traditions of people, companies, and countries are respected. In addition, international law comes from a variety of sources. The sources of international law can be divided into three categories: treaties, customary international law, and general principles.
International Treaties are Written
Treaties are typically written agreements between countries, or among countries and international organizations. They can include two parties or more, and cover many issues (e.g., peace, trade, or climate) Treaties are binding and can be enforced through international dispute settlement mechanisms.
Customary International Law
Customary international laws are often unwritten rules and practices that have been accepted by the international community that legally binds countries, based on the principle of opinio juris. However, customary international laws can later become legally binding if the custom is recognized as worthy of writing and binding. In addition, customary law has been found to be persuasive in the International Court of Justice, according to “Customary International Law: A New Theory with Practical Applications” by Brian D. Lepard.
General principles are recognized and often discussed in international disputes to fill the gaps in the existing sources of international law.
All three sources of international law require enforcement if international law is to have a real impact.
Enforcement of International Law
International Law will be meaningless if there is no way to ensure countries, companies, and individuals follow the law. Therefore, if international law is not followed, international courts and sanctions are used. These tools are designed to ensure compliance with international law and help promote peace and security around the world
International courts resolve disputes between countries and ensure compliance with international law. The most prominent of these courts is the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a department of the United Nations, that settles disputes between countries and provides advisory opinions on international legal issues. Once the ICJ provides a final decision, countries are required to comply with the decision.
Other international courts include the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals for some of the most heinous acts such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which decides on disputes about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; and International Labour Organization Administrative Tribunal for settling conflicts between intergovernmental organizations employees and its employees.
Sanctions are generally actions taken by countries or international organizations to force another country to comply with international law. Sanctions come in a variety of forms and can include economic sanctions, trade embargoes, travel bans, and asset freezes. In addition, sanctions can be used against countries, companies, and individuals.
Sanctions can be imposed by intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations Security Council, or by individual countries. The Security Council is also able to authorize the use of force to enforce international law (e.g., the Gulf War in 1991). Sanctions may be unilateral involving coming from one country, or embrace the concept of internationality where a group of countries can collectively sanction a country.
Internationality requires the participation of more than one country, and this is the basis for the effectiveness of international law. While international law has provided many benefits to the world, it has some critiques that have merit.
Critiques of International Law
There is no perfect system and international law has many critiques. Some of the main critiques of international law include the lack of strong enforcement, the influence of powerful countries on international law, and the lack of true representation.
Lack of Strong Enforcement Method
Domestic laws are generally enforced by a country with a police and/or military, however, international law does not have a standing army and essentially relies on countries to voluntarily comply. Many individuals make the point that international law is ineffective because countries can choose not to follow international laws that it does not agree with and there may not be any consequences. For example, scholars have mixed opinions on the effectiveness of sanctions according to a research paper titled “Determinants of sanctions effectiveness: Sensitivity analysis using new data.”
The Influence of Powerful Countries
Powerful countries such as the US, United Kingdom, China, and Russia all sit on the UN Security Council and other international organizations which allows them to use their influence to shape international law in their favor. This criticism focuses on the idea that international law is not objective, but reflects the interests and values of the most powerful countries.
Lack of Democratic Representation
International law is often drafted and enforced by unelected individuals, diplomats, and experts. Many complain about the lack of transparency and the need to ensure everyone’s interests are represented and reflected.
National Law is Strengthened by International Law
One of the key benefits of International law is that national laws are theoretically stronger and more fair. This is because laws that are discriminatory or cause physical harm against groups of people violate international law. Violating international law may have other countries impose sanctions on the respective country.
In addition, international laws allow local citizens to have a foundation to determine the morality and legality of their national laws. For example, the definition of terrorism at the international level has led to better definitions of terrorism on the local and national level, according to “Defining terrorism: The evolution of terrorism as a legal concept in international law and its influence on definitions in domestic legislation.”
What are National Laws?
National Laws are defined as rules and regulations that govern the behaviors of individuals and institutions in a local jurisdiction. National laws may become in effect through a democracy, monarch, or authoritarian regime. National laws are typically enforced by the local courts, police, and military.
Future of International Law
As the world becomes increasingly connected, international law will need to continuously evolve to meet the changing needs of the world. Internationality and global cooperation will be needed to protect human rights and promote peace and security.
Existing laws and regulations will need to be modernized, and clearer ways to enforce international laws will be needed. In addition, the creation of strong partnerships between countries, individuals, and companies will be needed to promote and increase the overall well-being of humanity.