International law is law that deals with relationships between states, or
between persons or entities in different states. It sub-divides into "public
international law", and "private international law". When used without an
adjective, "international law" generally refers to "public international
law", and this article concentrates on that meaning.
Traditionally, international law had states as its sole subjects. With the
proliferation over the last century of international organizations, they
have been recognized as its subjects as well. More recent developments in
international human rights law, international humanitarian law and
international trade law (e.g. NAFTA Chapter 11 actions) have lead to
individuals and corporations being increasingly seen as subjects of
international law as well, something which goes against the traditional
legal orthodoxy. Since international law increasingly governs much more than
merely relations between sovereign states, it may be better defined as law
decided and enforced at the international, as opposed to national level.
International legal norms can be customary or conventional.
International law usually deals with treaties created or recognized by the
United Nations. These laws apply in all member states. These laws are
written by the sixth committee of the United Nations General Assembly.
International law also deals with international treaties. The International
Court of Justice in The Hague in the Netherlands deals with violations of
these treaties and laws. After that, the General Assembly decides what to do
to that country or party. Some parties do not recognize that the General
Assembly has any authority to enforce violations of international law, some
treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
have an optional protocol that allows individuals who have had their rights
violated by member states to petition the international Human Rights Committee.
Through the ages a code developed for the relations and conduct between
nations. Even when nations were at war, envoys were often considered immune
The first formal attempts in this direction, which over time have developed
into the current international law, stem from the era of the Renaissance in Europe.
In the Middle Ages it had been considered the obligation of the Church to
mediate in international disputes. In the 16th and 17th centuries the Church
gradually lost its direct influence in international affairs, as Catholic
and Protestant powers emerged and struggled for dominance and survival. At
the beginning of the 17th Century, several generalizations could be made
about the political situation:
1. Self-governing, autonomous states existed.
2. Almost all of them were governed by monarchies.
1. England had a constitutional monarchy.
2. Not all despots were hereditary: the Holy Roman Emperor and the
King of Poland were elected.
3. Switzerland, the Netherlands, and many Italian city-states were
3. After the the 7 Years' War, there was relative stability in Europe for
130 years (until the 1789 French Revolution).
4. Land, wealth, trading rights, and monopolizing the new lands were the
topics of war.
Some people assert that international law developed to deal with the new
states arising, others claim that the lack of influence of the Pope and the
Catholic church gave rise to the need for new generally-accepted codes.
The Dominican professor Francisco de Vitoria (in Latin Franciscus de
Victoria) of theology at the University of Salamanca lectured on the rights
of the natives. He did so while Spain was at the height of its power, after
the violent Spanish conquest of Peru in 1536. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor,
protested against the friar, but in 1542 new laws put the natives under
protection of the Spanish crown. Vitoria is generally recognized as the
founder of modern international law.
The French monk Emeric Cruce (1590-1648) came up with the idea of having
representatives of all countries meeting in one place to discuss their
conflicts so as to avoid war and create more peace. He suggested this in his
The New Cyneas (1623), choosing Venice to be the selected city for all of
the representatives to meet, and suggested that the Pope should preside over
the meeting. Of course, during the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648), this was
not acceptable to the Protestant nations. He also said that armies should be
abolished and called for a world court. Though his call to abolish armies
was not taken seriously, Emeric Cruce does deserve his place in history
through his foresight that international organizations are crucial to solve
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was a Dutch humanist and a jurist and he is
considered the founder of international law. He became a lawyer when he was
15 years old and got sentenced to life in prison after going against Maurice
of Nassau, son of William of Orange in a trial, but he escaped in fled to
Paris. In France, he developed his ideas on international law with his Mare
Liberum (Latin for "Free seas"), in which he challenged the claims and
attempts of England, Spain, and Portugal to rule portions of the oceans and
seas. He gained new international fame in 1625 with his book De Jure Belli
ac Pacis (The Law of War and Peace), as it became the first definitive text
on international law. It was published only two years after The New Cyneas.
Much of Grotius's content drew from the Bible and from classical history. In
his work he did not condemn war as only a political tool, considering cases
in which war is appropriate. He further developed the just war theory. A
just war fits certain criteria:
1. It can be to repel an invasion.
2. It can be to punish an insult to God.
3. There has to be a just cause (one of the two mentioned above).
4. It has to be declared by the proper authorities.
5. It must possess moral intention.
6. It must have a chance of success.
7. It must abstain from brutal practices.
8. Its end result must be proportional to the means used.
The statesmen of the time believed no nation could escape war, so they
prepared for it.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a political philosopher who moved to France
after his ideas raised antagonism from Parliament. In France, he tutored the
exiled King of Scotland Charles II. His materialistic views alienated the
Catholic clergy, so he went back to England, where he lived until his death.
In his book the Leviathan (1651), which was a revision of a previous work,
he outlined his political philosophy by stating that men are naturally
selfishly individualistic and that their fear of a violent death is the
principal motive behind their support of an absolute sovereign (this is
known as the social contract theory). He believed that the sovereign should
be absolute and that a monarchy was the most efficient form of a sovereign
leader (he came to this conclusion after living through the English civil
war and seeing the problems of Cromwell's "Commonwealth"). He believed that
temporal powers should always be above ecclesiastical powers.
King Henry IV's Chief Minister, the Duke of Sully, proposed the founding of
an alliance of the European nations that was to meet to arbitrate issues and
wage war not between themselves but collectively on the Ottoman Turks, and
he called it the Grand Design, but was never established.
Modern International Law has its roots in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.
International Law continued to develop with the colonization of the New
World, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars,
and on into the 20th Century.
After World War I, the nations of the world decided to form an international
body. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson came up with the idea of a "League of
Nations". However, due to political wrangling in the U.S. Congress, the
United States did not join the League of Nations, which was one of the
causes of its demise.
When World War II broke out, the League of Nations was finished. Yet at the
same time, the United Nations was being formed. On January 1, 1942, U.S.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the "Declaration by United Nations"
on behalf of 26 nations who had pledged to fight against the Axis powers. At
the end of the war, representatives of 50 nations met in San Francisco to
draw up the charter for an international body to replace the League of
Nations. On October 24,1945 , the United Nations officially came into
existence, setting a basis for all international law to follow.