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International law is the set of rules generally regarded and accepted as
binding in relations between states and between nations.12 It serves as a
framework for the practice of stable and organized international relations.3
International law differs from state-based legal systems in that it is primarily
applicable to countries rather than to private citizens. National law may become
international law when treaties delegate national jurisdiction to supranational
tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights or the International
Criminal Court. Treaties such as the Geneva Conventions may require national law
Much of international law is consent-based governance. This means that a state member of the international community is not obliged to abide by this type of international law, unless it has expressly consented to a particular course of conduct.4 This is an issue of state sovereignty. However, other aspects of international law are not consent-based but still are obligatory upon state and non-state actors such as customary international law and peremptory norms (jus cogens).
The term "international law" can refer to three distinct legal disciplines:
Public international law, which governs the relationship between states and international entities. It includes these legal fields: treaty law, law of sea, international criminal law, the laws of war or international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
Private international law, or conflict of laws, which addresses the questions of (1) which jurisdiction may hear a case, and (2) the law concerning which jurisdiction applies to the issues in the case.
Supranational law or the law of supranational organizations, which concerns regional agreements where the laws of nation states may be held inapplicable when conflicting with a supranational legal system when that nation has a treaty obligation to a supranational collective.
International law has existed since the mid-19th century. Two sophisticated legal systems developed in the Western World: the codified systems of continental European states (American Civil Law) and English common law, upon which the judge-made law of the United States is primarily based. In the 20th century, the two World Wars and the formation of the League of Nations (and other international organizations such as the International Labor Organization) all contributed to accelerate this process and established much of the foundations of modern public international law. After the failure of the Treaty of Versailles and World War II, the League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations, founded under the UN Charter. The UN has also been the locus for the development of new advisory (non-binding) standards, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Other international norms and laws have been established through international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war or armed conflict, as well as by agreements implemented by other international organizations such as the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, UNESCO, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. The development and consolidation of such conventions and agreements has proven to be of great importance in the realm of international relations.
A source of international law is where an international decision maker or researcher looks to verify the substantive legal rule governing a legal dispute or academic discourse. The sources of international law applied by the community of nations to find the content of international law are listed under Article 38.1 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice: Treaties, international customs, and general principles are stated as the three primary sources; and judicial decisions and scholarly writings are expressly designated as the subsidiary sources of international law. Many scholars agree that the fact that the sources are arranged sequentially in the Article 38 of the ICJ Statute suggests an implicit hierarchy of sources.5 However, there is no concrete evidence, in the decisions of the international courts and tribunals, to support such strict hierarchy, at least when it is about choosing international customs and treaties. In addition, unlike the Article 21 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which clearly defines hierarchy of applicable law (or sources of international law), the language of the Article 38 do not explicitly support hierarchy of sources. Download