Paralegal Guide: International Law
When the nations of Earth emerged from the horrors of World War II, the formation of the United Nations, it was hoped, would pave the way for a new era of diplomacy. In the postwar world, a fully modernized form of international law provides a framework for the resolution of disputes outside of war. To help the student researcher, we’ve assembled a brief guide to the very basics of international law, with links to relevant journals, organizations, and resources working with international law.
What Is International Law?
Whereas the vast majority of law practices occur within the laws of a given nation, international law by definition spans the laws of multiple nations and works within the legal framework agreed upon by treaties between nation-states.
When the general public thinks of international law, they are most likely thinking of what is known as public international law. Public international law refers to the legal relationships between the various nations and between international organizations. This form of law has existed in some form since the 19th Century, but became properly codified with the League of Nations and the UN. Public international lawyers generally perceive the UN Charter as their equivalent of the Constitution, a master document that acts as the meta-law for all disputes.
When a case can be settled internally, but it is unclear which nation’s system of laws prevails, the resulting conflict is examined and settled by the field of private international law. This can pertain to a criminal case (which country will an individual defendant be tried in?) or a civil case (how do we cope with a corporation that does most of its business in one nation and is headquartered in another?). As the processes of globalization continue, private international law becomes more and more pertinent, developed, and articulated.
Supranational law is closely related to public international law, but bears a couple of differences. Unlike public international law, which deals with treaties between nations, supranational law requires one or more nations to submit to the authority of a larger entity. The United Nations is an umbrella organization, but it is not supranational. The European Union is an example of a supranational entity, and the only extant example in the world today.
This tripartite division of types of international law is a fairly new concept. Historically, international law was split into jus gentium and jus inter gentes. Nowadays, these (originally Roman) concepts refer to the two elements of public international law. Jus gentium is the “law of nations,” or the laws governing national boundaries and diplomatic exchanges. Jus inter gentes, the “law between nations,” is the law of treaties and other international agreements. So, for instance, an agreement between Malaysia and Indonesia on their maritime border would be jus gentium. A UN convention on how maritime borders are drawn would be jus inter gentes.
The nearest thing to a “supreme court” in public international law is the International Court of Justice, commonly referred to as the World Court. The World Court settles legal disputes between nations. A second United Nations-organized court, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutes individuals charged with crimes against humanities. They maintain a permanent tribunal, as well as operating specific tribunals regarding areas where genocide has taken place (Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia).
Below, we’ve included links of scholarly interest to those researching international law, including the organs responsible for overseeing international law.
- The United Nations maintains a page on international law.
- The American Society of International Law (ASIL) is the foremost American organization of international lawyers.
- The rule of law, the glue that holds legal systems together, discussed by the UN.
- Cornell University has an educational portal on international law.
- The official website of the International Court for Criminal Justice.
- The official web page of the International Criminal Court.
- Opinio Juris is a widely read blog covering international law.
- The International Law Observer is another widely read blog.
- A collection of treaties, full text, from the UN.
- ASIL has assembled a multimedia project describing 100 ways that international law affects daily life.
- A collection of audio and video covering major moments in international law.
- Conflict of Laws is a collection of articles and resources on private international law.
- The American Society of Comparative Law is the major American organization studying comparative law, the discipline comparing and contrasting various legal systems.
- The U.S. Department of State maintains a portal on private international law.
- The Hague Conference on Private International Law is an international legal-academic body discussing the relationship between legal frameworks.
- Eur-Lex is a database of laws passed by the European Union.
- The official website of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the only active supranational legal body implemented thusfar on Earth.
- The United Nations Commission on International Trade Law works to harmonize the trade laws of the nations.
- ICTY, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, is a good example of a tribunal set up by the UN.
- The International Institute for the Unification of Private Law is an organization working to truly internationalize private law in a globalized era.
- The American Journal of International Law is the journal affiliated with ASIL.
- The International Business Law Journal is a French-English language publication covering private international law.
- The Journal of Law and Economics is published by the University of Chicago.
- Oxford publishes the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, the leading British publication on law, including extensive coverage of international law.
- The Stanford Journal of International Law is one of the major international law journals in the U.S.
- The Harvard International Law Journal is another organ of import.
- The Chicago Journal of International Law is also housed at the University of Chicago.
- International Legal Materials focuses on analysis of primary texts in international law.
- Foreign Affairs is one of the world’s leading publications on international relations.
IMAGE: A group of judges at the Nuremberg Trials, an important early war crimes tribunal that established the concept of “crimes against humanity” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)