What is “international law” and who enforced it?


What is “international law” and who enforced it?

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It’s an agreed set of standard laws which nations agree upon to some extent. It’s not actually enforceable but most civilised nations will take action to discourage acts which go against international law. This will probably be done to maintain international relationships.

“International law” is the set of treaties, compacts, and conventions to which various nations have all agreed. It is enforced through lawsuits and through international regulatory agencies, such as the World Trade Commission, the International Criminal Court, or the like. Sometimes, the suits can be filed in a country’s domestic courts, as well as the courts of the other nation, as well.

International laws are laws that multiple countries agree to, and can be enforced by the courts of those countries.

For example, the Patent Cooperation Treaty is a treaty between 152 countries, and if a country’s patent office violates a term of the treaty, that patent office can be sued in the country of that patent office.

However, not all treaties create enforceable rights. Some just contain memorandums of understanding and state an idealized goal. Others may create enforceable rights, but courts in those countries may make it difficult or impossible to enforce those rights due to procedural requirements. As is the case in almost all aspects of law, the devil is in the details.

The involvement of UN forces during the breakup of Yugoslavia is noted as being one of the first times the international criminal court was enacted, a large number of NATO countries led military strikes against slobidan melosavic (iirc the action came from the UN but the Russian block supported the Serbs who were winning and weren’t keen on disrupting that, meaning NATO Nations did much of the actual enforcement).

It’s a concept decided upon by people with large armies and economies so they don’t have to constantly fight each other to settle their disagreements, and to keep smaller countries in line. It’s enforced (erratically) by countries with large armies and economies through economic penalties and the threat of military force.

Don’t believe this “enforced by the courts” stuff- no court is capable of enforcing a decision against a Great Power if that power didn’t feel like complying. Notice that China and the US frequently ignore their theoretical treaty obligations and no enforcement occurs other than someone going “Tut tut” about it.

There are many ways of looking at international law and who enforces it. I will offer you the traditional view that many lawyers are taught but also mix in a bit of the more modern view in the end.

So, international law is best understood when compared to national law. In a national legal order, you have one institution in charge of making laws and one in charge of enforcing them, right?

Well in international law, who makes the laws? Generally speaking, because states are sovereign, only the states themselves make the laws. How? By either signing a treaty or creating customary rules. Treaties are created when two or more states basically sign a contract. Treaties can be as big as the UN Charter or as small as a fishing rights treaty between two neighboring states. Customary laws are created when a majority of states act (or refrain from acting) in a certain way and do so believing they are adhering to a legal rule. For example, the right to self defense was long a customary norm before it was codified in the UN Charter.

So, who enforces these laws? Well, this is the core issue of international law. Because countries, unlike citizens in a national legal order, are sovereign, there is no police and no one else to enforce the law but the countries themselves. So if a country violates the law, other countries enforce it. This can be done either through unilateral action or collective action. Collective action can many times go through the UN Security Council. To get the Council to act however, you need to have the most powerful countries in the world unite under a course of action. This has proven to be very hard. Often times then, enforcement takes the form of economic sanctions or sometimes even military force. Other times, enforcement simply never happens.

So to summarize, international law is made up of rules that states have agreed to follow. States themselves enforce these rules. Why? Because states are sovereign entities. You can immediately see the problem here. It is easy for the US to enforce the law on a country like Estonia, but a lot harder for Estonia to enforce it on the US. The most powerful countries can make more laws and the most powerful countries have to follow less laws, and vice versa.

However, just because laws are unjustly enforced doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t followed! Countries generally follow international law and will provide a legal basis for their actions. Why? What stops the US to break every treaty it has whenever it wants out of nothing but it’s own self interest? Well, in this day and age, countries are pressured to conform with legal norms by demands from their own populations, by the country’s own interest in wanting respect and prestige from the world community, etc. So while international law does have many flaws in terms of enforcement, it still very much affects countries and how they behave.