What Is International Law?

international law

Traditionally, international law has focused on the agreements and norms governing relations between sovereign states during times of peace and war. Its scope has expanded over time, however, and now encompasses a wide variety of activities and actors, including corporations, non-state international organizations and even some individuals.

The legal status of international law, as defined in the Charter of the United Nations, is that it is binding on all states that have agreed to be bound by it (Article 33). International treaties, custom and state practice, and judicial decisions are the primary sources of international law. In addition, general principles that are common to systems of national law may also be considered international law.

A country that agrees to be bound by an international treaty does so voluntarily. Other countries can put political or economic pressure on a state to sign, but cannot force it. When a treaty is breached, the consequences are typically settlement by peaceful means rather than armed conflict.

In general, a state’s international legal obligations can be enforced only by other states that have agreed to be bound by it, and by the courts of those states. The Charter of the United Nations calls for a system of peaceful settlement of disputes, which is supervised by the International Court of Justice. This body was founded in 1946. Its role is to assist in the progressive development and codification of international law, and to settle disputes by arbitration and judicial means when disputes arise.

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