The History of International Law

international law

In its classic definition, international law is a set of rules governing relations between states. But this original Bentham-inspired notion is now too narrow to capture the essence of the modern field. It excludes individuals and international organizations, the most dynamic elements of international law. It also omits the fact that international law now encompasses far more than agreements and norms between state actors, with many of the most effective binding instruments regulating human interaction among private, non-governmental actors, such as agreements to protect against torture; promote equal treatment for women; ensure fair trade; protect cultural heritage during armed conflict; or prohibit the production, use and transfer of chlorofluorocarbons.

This variety of different norms, legal regimes and actors is reflected in more recent approaches to the study of international law, which focus on pluralistic governance processes rather than on a unified system of laws, and on informal legal-making processes as well as formal ones. These new approaches are based on the recognition that international law is not only a body of rules, but also an idea that binds, inspires and justifies global action.

This resource explores the history of international law, the most important international agreements that bind it and why countries sometimes break those rules. It considers what makes international law so influential, how we can measure its impact and the difficulties of holding nations accountable for violations of international law. It steers clear of overstating the impact of international law and takes a modest approach to its understanding, but it also recognises the need for further research to enhance our knowledge of how international law is created, perceived and enforced in practice.

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