International Law

Just as our federal and state governments set laws for U.S. citizens, the international community has created certain laws with the intent to seek cooperation among other countries. There is some debate, however, about it actually being referred to as “law” due to the lack of any overarching authority for enforcement. International law may be more accurately considered cooperation between state partners who agree to abide by their commitments.

With our ever-changing global economy, international law has grown more important in recent decades. There has always been some concern over issues that affect human rights, protection of life and property, and rules of war, now, however, other legal issues that cross international boundaries are growing by leaps and bounds.

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Some of the changes that have impacted the international legal systems are access across borders, citizens living abroad, Internet access, and companies with satellite offices or headquarters in multiple countries. The world as a whole is shrinking. While each country strives to maintain their own individual set of laws, there are instances where international law must be considered.  There are different forms of international law as well.

International Law

There are what has been referred to as “customary international law” and “state practice.” As a general rule, these laws result from countries following certain laws out of a sense of legal obligation and practice. These laws may be seen as bearing on the international community when it is evident that a country has regularly practiced and enforced certain rules. Treaties are another form of international law. A treaty is an international agreement that is brought about when sovereign states agree to cooperate with each other.

International law is complex and dynamic. Just as relationships in the international community are constantly changing, so too are the laws. One of the best ways to locate information about other countries international law practices is through that country’s yearbook on international law. Many states create a yearbook for publication and record. Even though they may not be an official document, they are often published by national law societies and contain articles about international state law and practice including the role of the United Nations.

The role of the United Nations (UN) in international law is often misunderstood. It is one of development and authorization of enforcement rather than acting as the enforcer. The United Nations also engages peacekeeping forces to create an environment of safety and security. They do not, however, act as an enforcer of international law. Who then enforces international law?

Enforcement of international law varies. For instance, a treaty may spell out how legal issues will be heard and who will govern them. There isn’t one single entity created to oversee all international law such as the Supreme Court here in the United States. There are however, tactics that governments use to enforce laws when they are broken. Three such tactics are: collective action such as an embargo on trade, use of reciprocity of actions or force, and public shame. These three tactics are often implemented with the approval of the UN.

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Legal decisions handed down by the UN happen thorough the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is the judicial arm of the UN. Since 1946 the ICJ has operated out of the Netherlands from the Peace Palace in The Hague. The role of the ICJ is to settle legal disputes and act in an advisory position on questions of international law. The United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council elect the fifteen judges making up the ICJ.

In time international law may gain momentum and become much more clear and comprehensive than it is today. The difficulty will always remain with enforcement when there is a lack of supreme authority and the desire of each state to maintain its own sovereignty.

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