International law, an overview: purposes, structure and relevance today

International law is largely concerned with interactions between governments, as opposed to national law, which focuses on interactions
international law

International law is largely concerned with interactions between governments, as opposed to national law, which focuses on interactions between persons and between individuals and the state.

Its scope is actually considerably wider and it applies to many diverse concerns. Thus despite the fact that it frequently connects with significant topics like war crimes, combating climate change, and international agreements.

Purposes of international law

First and foremost, international law’s principal goal and function is to advance justice, prosperity, and peace on a global scale. It is the most effective tool for preventing violent conflicts between nations and assisting in the improvement of their bilateral ties.

International law is a means of regulating relations between nations on a global scale because most nations sign bilateral or multilateral agreements and special treaties with one another. In addition, international law is essential for ensuring the prosecution of war crimes and the most serious transgressions of international humanitarian law.

Without the successful application of legal principles, the goal of justice in the world could not be attained. But how does the law impact our daily lives? It is crucial to the process of defending our fundamental freedoms and human rights. Every day, we encounter a variety of events in life that are in some way under the law. As an illustration, signing employment contracts obligates us to follow labor laws.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), approved by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, established the link between international law and human rights by providing protection for those rights.

What are international law’s sources?

There are three sources that are specified under Article 38 (1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which lists the sources of international law used by the community of states. 

  • Treaty
  • Customs
  • General principles

The production of international laws is inescapably more difficult than the creation of laws in domestic legal systems. This is due to the horizontal and decentralized nature of the international legal system.

1. Treaty

International treaty law consists of commitments that governments expressly and freely agree among themselves through treaties. A treaty is an international agreement reached between States in writing and controlled by international law. Whether it consists of a single instrument, two or more linked documents, or has another specific name. 

According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which codifies a number of fundamental principles of treaty interpretation, a treaty “shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.” Between three opposing theories of interpretation, the following compromise has been reached:

  • the textual approach: a constrictive interpretation that emphasizes the “ordinary meaning” of the text and gives it a lot of weight;
  • the subjective approach: it considers elements including the treaty’s principles, its historical setting, and the drafters’ intentions;
  • the effective approach: it bases its interpretation of a treaty on “its object and purpose,” or on what best advances the treaty’s objectives.

2. Custom

As a second basis of international law, the ICJ’s statute mentions “international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law.” Custom contains two key components. The actual behavior of nations and the adoption by states of that behavior as law. Its significance reflects the decentralized nature of the international system.

Except in circumstances where a state has opposed from the outset of the custom, a demanding test to prove, all states in the international community are bound by a practice once it becomes a custom. Whether or not individual states have formally accepted.

3. The general principles of law

The general principles of law are accepted by civilized countries. These principles effectively offer a means to handle global concerns that are not previously covered by either treaty clauses or legally binding customary standards. These overarching concepts derive from both domestic and international law. And many of them are actually procedural, evidentiary, or judicial process-related principles.

Good faith is arguably the most crucial element in international law. It is the cornerstone of treaty law and regulates the formation and fulfillment of legal commitments. Equity is a crucial general principle that allows for certain latitude in the implementation and enforcement of international law.

Read also: What is the UN, what are its main purposes and its relevance today

Adequacy of international law

The debate about whether international law is sufficient to fulfill global objectives like fighting poverty, maintaining fairness, and achieving “justice” lies on the other side of the trade-off between state sovereignty. To achieve these objectives, however, international law was never developed.

It was implemented to maintain stability and international order. Usually, these factors take precedence over ideals of justice or fairness. Recent humanitarian actions that took place without the UN’s assistance posed a significant threat to world peace. Of fact, there are other ways to organize the existing international legal system beyond the “Westphalian way” (in which the state plays a central role).

Other options include creating a worldwide government, emphasizing race or religion more, or both. Overall, there is a general understanding that there is no better option right now. Thus despite the fact that the current system has flaws.

Read also: The Hague, International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for Putin: “responsible for war crimes”

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