International Law matters

International Law matters


The recent military conflicts, notably Israel’s actions in Gaza and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have led to discussions on the effectiveness of international law, especially in preventing the use of force.

  • Critics argue that international law is dead, citing poor compliance and structural deficiencies.


GS – 02 (International Treaties & Agreements, Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles of State Policy, Important International Institutions)

Mains question:

International law and its attendant structures are not ideal. But the world would be worse off if they weren’t there. Comment. (250 words)

Dimensions of the Article:

  • From the Article- “Why International law matters”
  • Understanding International Law
  • Subjects of International Law
  • Types of International Law
  • Sources of International Law

From the Article- “Why International law matters”

  • While international law faces structural challenges and historical criticisms of its imperial nature, the argument that poor compliance renders it inconsequential is overly simplistic.
  • Examining compliance alone fails to capture the normative effects and the broader normative interaction that international law has with diverse actors, including both states and non-state entities.
  • Harold Hongju Koh suggests that states engage in a complex transnational legal process when interacting with international law. This process involves global norm debates, interpretations, and internalization within a nation’s domestic legal system.
  • The transnational legal process becomes crucial in achieving material benefits or policy goals that only international law can facilitate, such as addressing climate change or combating terrorism.
  • The argumentative practices of international law create a framework for holding those wielding public power accountable for their actions. Even if this accountability doesn’t always result in punishment, it prompts countries and actors to justify and explain their conduct. For instance, South Africa’s move to the International Court of Justice against Israel’s actions in Gaza exemplifies the accountability-seeking aspect of international law.

Understanding International Law:

  • International law serves as a complex system of rules devised by countries and other entities in the global arena to regulate their conduct, fostering cooperation and order.
  • This body of law is not a monolithic entity but rather a diverse collection of rules and principles that have evolved over time, drawn from treaties, customs, and general legal principles.

Subjects of International Law:

  • Countries: As the primary subjects, countries enjoy sovereign rights, allowing them to enter treaties, engage in diplomatic relations, and use force in self-defense.
  • International Organizations: Entities like the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund are formed by countries to pursue common objectives.
  • Individuals: The development of human rights law has elevated individuals as subjects of international law, providing protection for certain fundamental rights.

Types of International Law:

  • Human Rights Law: Focuses on safeguarding individual rights, including the right to life, liberty, and a fair trial.
  • Environmental Law: Addresses global environmental challenges such as pollution, conservation, and sustainable development.
  • International Criminal Law: Deals with the punishment of individuals for international crimes like genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
  • Trade Law: Governs commercial transactions and the behavior of nations in international trade, covering issues like tariffs, intellectual property rights, and trade disputes.

Sources of International Law:

  • Treaties: Legally binding agreements between states.
  • Custom: A law formed by consistent state practices over time.
  • General Principles of Law: Common principles found in most legal systems.
  • Judicial Decisions: Rulings from international courts and tribunals.
  • Writings of Scholars: Scholarly works, though less authoritative, can also contribute to the development of international law.

Way forward:

  • Acknowledging that international law and its structures are not perfect, it is crucial to recognize their value. The existence of international legal frameworks compels countries to explain their actions to the global community.
  • While universal compliance might be lacking, there is a universal aspiration towards compliance. The goal should be to shape international law as an instrument that holds powerful entities accountable in international relations, constraining expansionist and illiberal tendencies.