What Is International Law?

international law

In a globalized world, it is increasingly common for people to interact with international laws whether as part of a multinational corporation’s legal department, an individual importing goods or services into another country, or even a victim seeking justice in a case that crosses national boundaries. Many of these interactions take place based on agreements, treaties and organizations such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice or Interpol. These agreements, treaties and organizations are what make up international law—or public international law—which regulates relations and activities among nations.

Its legacy includes open democratic participation in lawmaking and broader freedoms of speech and assembly, more independent courts, and global cooperation on issues such as health, environmental protection and terrorism. Yet its rules are not without their flaws. The Security Council, for example, does not have a full range of states participating in its lawmaking and, therefore, its resolutions often call for far-reaching changes to domestic law in states that are excluded from the process.

International law also lacks a universally accepted authority to enforce its rules. Instead, its enforcement is largely through the voluntary compliance of states with international laws, or through ad hoc efforts such as those of the International Court of Justice. Nevertheless, international law is not entirely divorced from ethical concerns, with normative guidelines and a common conceptual language for the interaction of international actors—primarily sovereign states but also non-state international organizations and individuals.

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