What is International Law? Lesson I: International Law is INTERNATIONAL

What is International Law?


Lesson One: International Law is INTERNATIONAL

It’s not just what your government or experts in your country say it is.

International law is made, interpreted, and applied by nations, organizations, courts, government officials, and individuals from every country in the world. It is a collective endeavor, now over 400 years old, by all of the nations and inhabitants of the planet.

Despite its defects and shortcomings, international law and institutions represent the system for the governance of the planet which currently exists.

Section I: Language and Participants

Because international law is INTERNATIONAL, scholars and officials come from different countries, and write in different languages.

a. Textbooks / leading treatises.

For example, international law professors and scholars write textbooks and treatises in different languages.

See, e.g.,

1) Bruno Simma, Universelles Völkerrecht:  Theorie und Praxis (Berlin:  Duncker & Humblot, 1984, 2010-Unveränderter Nachdruck der dritten Auflage).

Excerpt (pp. 74-75):

Die Verfassung der Vereinten Nationen

2. Abschnitt

Die Ziele und Grundsätze der UNO

§95 Zwar finden wir schon im klassischen VR einen Ansatz zu einem ius cogens. Dieses wurde aber wegen des individualistischen Charakters des VR von verschiedenen Schriftsetellern bestritten. Welche Normen des VR vor der Geltung der UN-Charta zwingender Natur waren, wird später zu prüfen sein. Hier behandeln wir bloss die Frage, welche Neuerungen darüber in der Charta enthalten sind.

§96 Der wichtigste Grundsatz dieser Art ist das zwischenstaatliche Gewaltverbot, da die Erhaltung des Weltfrieden das oberste Ziel der UNO bildet. Richtig bemerkt daher Gregorij Tunkin: „Der Frieden ist unteilbar, und ein bewaffneter Angriff eines Staates auf einem anderen, gleichgültig ob es sich um grosse oder kleine Staaten handelt, ist eine Verletzung des allgemeinen Friedens, an dessen Erhaltung alle Staaten interessiert sind.“ Dem grundsätzlichen Gewaltverbot kann daher durch keinen Vertrag innerhalb einer engeren Staatengruppe derogiert werden. Zwar können zwei oder mehrere Staaten untereinander partikuläre oder regionale Völkerrechtsnormen im Rahmen der UN-Charta vereinbaren, sofern diese dem ius cogens der Vereinten Nationen nicht widersprechen; ja sie dürfen sich sogar zu einem neuen (Eiinheits- oder Bundes-) Staat zusammenschliessen, sie können aber nicht soveräne Mitglieder der UNO bleiben und zugleich das Gewaltverbot einseitig oder untereinander beschränken oder gar aufheben….

2)  Pierre-Marie Dupuy and Yann Kerbrat, Droit International Public, 13ème édition (Paris:  Dalloz, 2016).

3)  Malcolm N. Shaw, International Law, 8th ed. (C:ambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017).

4) Olivier Corten, Le droit contre la guerre. Deuxième édition augmenteée (Paris: Éditions A. PEDONE, 2014), avec une Préface par Bruno Simma écrit en 2007.

5)  Hague Academy of International Law, Récueil des Cours/Collected Courses (The Hague, yearly).

The Hague Academy of International Law, charged with furthering international law and the work of the International Court of Justice, holds courses in the Hague every summer. These are published in French and English in volumes in the series entitled, Récueil des Cours/Collected Courses. These courses, which are mostly on basic subjects in international law, including an introductory course, are taught by professors and scholars from countries around the world. The Récueil des Cours, and the decisions of the ICJ are found in the law libraries and national libraries of every country in the world. Summaries can be found in the ICJ’s Annual Reports.

Students and government officials from all over the world attend these classes. If you have or develop a deep interest in international law, you might consider attending a cycle of summer courses at the Hague Academy yourself. Alumni report that it has been one of the most exhilarating experiences of their lives.

b.  Members of the ICJ

Further evidence of how INTERNATIONAL international law is comes from the fact that among the 15 judges who sit on the World Court, each is from a different country, and together they represent the major cultures and civilizations in the world.

The current judges sitting on the Court are the following:

President Joan E. DONOGHUE
United States of America

Vice-President Kirill GEVORGIAN
Russian Federation

Judge Peter TOMKA

Judge Ronny ABRAHAM

Judge Mohamed BENNOUNA

Judge Antônio Augusto CANÇADO TRINDADE

Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed YUSUF

Judge XUE Hanqin


Judge Dalveer BHANDARI

Judge Patrick Lipton ROBINSON

Judge James Richard CRAWFORD

Judge Nawaf SALAM

Judge IWASAWA Yuji

Judge Georg NOLTE

See the pictures and biographies of these judges here.

Section 2: A Vast Project Involving All Nations

The Broader Vision

How can we form a vision of this vast human effort in which nations, international organizations, government officials, scholars, judges, and citizens, all of whom play important roles, are working to develop, interpret, and apply international law?

Law professors and law and undergraduate students in every country in the world are teaching and taking courses in international law.

Foreign ministry officials in every country in the world have taken international law courses at universities in their country, and sometimes advanced courses abroad, using textbooks in their own language or in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, or another major language.

The judges on the International Court of Justice in the Hague or ICJ (commonly known as “the World Court”) write their opinions in English or French, which are translated into the other working language of the Court (French or English as the case may be), and all pleadings (briefs) and opinions are translated into French and English. This was also true for the predecessor to the ICJ, the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) which was established with the League of Nations at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, after World War I.

Considering the ICJ to be essentially a continuation of the PCIJ–members of the ICJ sit in the same “Peace Palace” as did judges of the PCIJ–one can say that “the World Court” has existed for over a hundred years.

To be sure, its jurisdiction is “voluntary”, and it hasn’t resolved all or even the most important of the international disputes that have arisen in the last hundred years. The United States never joined the League, or accepted either the voluntary or the “compulsory” jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of International Justice (see more on the jurisdiction of the PCIJ and the ICJ, below, in the lesson on the role of courts in the international legal system).

The lack of U.S. participation in the League and the Court undoubtedly limited the growth of their influence and capabilities. The Court, which continued functioning after the League of Nations had itself for all intents and purposes failed, became a poignant symbol of the failure of international law and institutions when German tanks entered its grounds in May, 1940.

Law professors, lawyers, and students have been teaching and studying and writing books on subjects of international law for hundreds of years. Scholars have been writing about the system of international law since the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a kind of “world war” in its day, and since the seminal writings of Hugo Grotius in this period. Grotius is universally recognized as the founder of the modern system of international law, which is now some 400 years old.

Over centuries, scholars and students of international law have developed a highly sophisticated system and language of communication, in highly precise, shared language and concepts, which states, international organizations, and individuals use to articulate legal claims of right, legal justifications, criticisms, and claims against actions by other states (and/or companies).

Officials and scholars, in particular, are consequently able to communicate with each other using the shared grammar, concepts, and vocabulary of international law, whether expressed in their own language or in English, French, or another major language.

International law is generally of universal applicability, or widespread applicability among regional groups or parties to treaties who have accepted reciprocal obligations.

Moreover, international law is used to determine whether specific norms of international law exist, and if they do whether they apply in a particular case.

In a world with 7.7 billion people and over 190 different countries, the scope and depth of international law and institutions affecting interactions between nations, organizations, companies, and individuals, is vast, and hard to overestimate.

International law governs practically every domain of human life. It is perhaps the most important tool that humans have developed to organize and regulate their interactions–involving more than one country or universal norms–on the planet.

And throughout this vast domain of norms regulating activities among different countries, international organizations and companies, and individuals, the one pervasive characteristic that stands out is that international legal norms and institutions are INTERNATIONAL.

No one country or group of countries can determine the content of an international legal norm.

No one country can impose its interpretation of a legal norm on all the other actors in the international legal system.

No single country or group of countries can by itself or themselves create a new norm of international law that is binding on others.

International law is INTERNATIONAL at its core. It is created, interpreted, and authoritatively applied by courts, international arbitral panels (a kind of ad hoc court establisged by agreement), foreign ministries and other officials of states (international law often refers to nations as “states”), international organization officials, and private actors (including both individuals and companies) from all around the world.

The process in which all of this occurs may be referred to as The International Legal Process, which itself takes place within what is commonly known as The International Legal System.

If there is one important thing to know and always remember about international law, it is that it is INTERNATIONAL.

It is not necessarily what officials and scholars in your country say it is.

If news reporters want to understand what the relevant international law in a given situation is they need to call and talk to scholars and officials in foreign countries. This is always the case, because international law is always INTERNATIONAL.

The International Law Guy

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By James Rowles

James Rowles is an author, teacher,, and International lawyer. He received a Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) in International Law from Harvard University, where he has also taught as a Lecturer on Law. See the "About the Author" Page for details.


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