What Is International Law?

international law

Traditionally, international law has been understood as a body of agreements and norms that govern relations between sovereign states during times of peace and war. This body of rules and regulations regulates everything from the treatment of diplomats to the conduct of war, as well as the global commons such as international waters, outer space and world trade.

There is no single rule book for international law, but it does include a vast number of treaties, conventions, standards and other instruments. In addition to the Charter of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, it includes multilateral and bilateral treaties, international organizations and ad hoc tribunals (such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the ICTY and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). Also included are a variety of global standard-setting initiatives that operate below the level of formal international law but still have considerable influence, such as the TRIPS-plus agreement on intellectual property rights among dozens of countries.

While a state may have signed an international agreement, the actual application of these rules depends on a country’s true and honest participation in the making and following of those rules. A country may halfheartedly participate in an agreement with the hope of making other countries happy, but this makes enforcement difficult, especially since there is no global police force or international prison for those who break international laws. In addition, the fact that legal rules are deduced from social practices and subjective beliefs creates many insecurities about their real content and binding effect.

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