International Law

International law is evolving and faces difficulties when special interests feel threatened.  It emerged from an effort to deal with conflict among states, since rules provide order and help to mitigate destructive conflict. The existence of law does not mean that conflict is any easier to resolve.  Instead, as law becomes more elaborate and constraining, it becomes contentious. Powerful people do not wish to be constrained in their ability to respond to threats. Developing countries see much of international law as being crafted without their input.  

The primary distinction between domestic and international law is that the latter often lacks an enforcement mechanism. There is no government to enforce the law, as there is in domestic situations. International law is often as much a source of conflict as it solves them. Most forms of international law is not enforceable unless powerful countries see it in their interest to do so, and cross-cultural differences make its interpretation and implementation difficult. The question is whether international laws really are laws if we do not translate them into domestic laws where there is greater potential for enforcement. By adapting international law into domestic statutes, governments, in theory, provide enforcement mechanisms. There are also instances in which domestic law not only does not contain international law but is in fact in contradiction to it.

Despite all the problems, we often follow international law. This is attributed, in part, to the backing of Great Powers, but I base much of international law on customary practice. States taking unilateral action may enforce international law if it is in their interest or through multilateral measures where sufficient consensus exists. Reciprocity can play a role, as benefits in other areas may gain from following laws.

Current global crises and other conditions associated with an emergent global ethos are speeding up considerations that demand deeper analysis of what we can cover under international law.  The evolution of international will fulfill some requirements over time; however, how it will evolve and the product gotten at each stage remains unknown.  One can only hope that it can accomplish its evolution with little armed conflict.  The future of global human development and humanity’s wellbeing is dependant upon that not yet revealed.

Adapted from: Brahm, Eric. “International Law.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 .


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