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What is International Law?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 23, 2024
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International law is a body of legal rules, regulations and accepted practices by which countries, organizations and people throughout the world interact with each other and with citizens of different countries. There are two basic categories of this type of law: public and private. Public international law deals with relationships between nations or between a nation and organizations or people from other countries. Private international law deals with disputes between citizens of different countries or businesses from different countries, especially when there is a question of which country's laws apply or where the dispute should be resolved. There are certain courts and bodies, such as the United Nations Security Council, that have the power to decide cases of international law.

Sources of International Laws

Countries are bound by international laws only when they agree to be bound by them. They might join international organizations, such as the United Nations or European Union, and agree to follow all of the rules, laws and guidelines set forth by the organization. They also might agree to treaties, pacts, charters or other agreements that include specific laws or rules. Sometimes, however, countries that are not party to these agreements might be held accountable by other countries for violating certain laws or rules. This is especially true for matters such as human rights, wartime laws and territorial rights.

Public International Law

The public variety of this type of law applies when two or more countries or sovereign entities are involved. These laws might cover topics such as human rights, wartime laws and the laws at sea. Violations of these laws might result in ramifications such as sanctions by other countries, the ending of certain agreements between the countries that are involved or, in the most severe cases, declarations of war.

Private International Law

When legal matters involve people, businesses or private organizations from separate countries, rather than government bodies, it is considered private international law. This type of law often involves settling matters such as which country's laws apply or where the case will be decided. It often is necessary for governments to step in to help their citizens settle these matters or to help them achieve a fair result.


In addition to matters such as human rights, maritime laws and war crimes, subjects that typically are covered by international laws include drug control, aviation laws, telecommunications, space law and other topics that often stretch beyond a country's borders. Other international laws concern the way countries interact with each other, such as in trade relations and matters of military disarmament. One of the growing areas that these laws cover is that of intellectual property rights, because technology advances have made copyright infringement and digital piracy easier.

International Courts

The most well-known court that decides international legal matters is the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, which was established by the United Nations in 1945. Serious matters of public international law are often decided by the United Nations Security Council, which is most concerned with maintaining peace. A well-known international court that decides less serious matters is the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which was established in 1984 and handles cases that involve international athletics.

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Link to Sources
Discussion Comments
By anon992718 — On Sep 26, 2015

International law is an instrument of post colonialism. It has become another scientific concept to subvert the economic development of the weakest nations of the world. The world power were never sanctions in any war crimes. The ICJ speaks in favor of her own community. It is all about the activities of the strongest nations of the world against the weak nations.

By anon295850 — On Oct 08, 2012

If man can compromise with divine law, how much more will he compromise with man made laws? The very states that ratify these international rules are the very ones that go against the rules and get away with it. All the same, what has been put in place as a law remains a law unless otherwise repealed!

By anon278567 — On Jul 07, 2012

What can be said about public international law being euro centric?

By anon276265 — On Jun 22, 2012

In all of international law, no more curious concept exists than customary international law. It seems that its method of creation is uncertain, its method of development mysterious and its application is arbitrary.

By anon262568 — On Apr 20, 2012

Then is the presence of private international law a proof of failure of public international law?

By anon253488 — On Mar 09, 2012

I can agree that international law exists, but the thing is that these laws are only across the poor countries, but rich nations do whatever think is good to do.

By anon242575 — On Jan 24, 2012

Great. Keep up with all the updates in the international legal issues.

By anon231163 — On Nov 23, 2011

Please give me notes on the scope of international law.

By anon228359 — On Nov 08, 2011

Is there a right judicial system for international law?

By anon221519 — On Oct 12, 2011

obviously, public international law has the status of law, but only in terms of its written status, but when we talk about its applicability, it has a fake status. The whole of our history is a clear picture of the might is right. --sidra

By anon221321 — On Oct 11, 2011

I have to write a five page paper and wanted some different opinions on it. The prompt is:

What are, in your view, the ethical implications of the indisputable claim that we all live in an increasingly globalized world? Should we aim at building a “global ethics” (and, if so, on what grounds could this be accomplished?), or should we respect even objectionable foreign practices as the expression of cultural diversity?

By anon161160 — On Mar 18, 2011

international law is really not what it is supposed to be, but is a weapon used by the sovereign communities to foster their aims on the weaker states or communities in international relations.

International law was therefore set up with a lot of ideological demagogues toward weaker and incapacitated communities or countries on the world scene, for nefarious gains or purposes. It is also true that human rights are not what they are supposed to be, but to oppress the weak countries worldwide and to empower the craftiness of the sovereign states against the weaker ones. --K. Keen.

By anon159505 — On Mar 12, 2011

i do not think that international law has the force of law. On the contrary, it is just a body of moral code of conduct designed to guide members but it has no machinery to enforce sanction on defaulters. Ada L.

By chas46 — On Mar 12, 2011

International Law is merely making safe and secure "Human Rights".

By chas46 — On Mar 12, 2011

In reply to #26. No matter what it looks like, criminals never get away. That is only a temporary condition and appearance.

By chas46 — On Mar 12, 2011

International law is subject to the level of civilization [in government] of whatever country one may happen to live in or be traveling through. Obey the laws of the USA and you will travel and live a pretty safe and secure life. Same can be said for Canada and many other countries.

By anon158882 — On Mar 09, 2011

in my view, international law means what it literally and expressly means.it is undeniable that it is sometimes neglected (more often than not) the economically muscular states. this is probably to prove right the ancient Greek thinkers-Sophists that might is right.

however, like the domestic law which is less sensitive to the elite or the clique, international law is really law but probably the most flawed of all. it may be argued however that international law' credibility as law is questionable for defrauders are not automatically subject to suctions but have to be tried by the ICJ only on a consensual basis.

By anon157184 — On Mar 01, 2011

what major events led to to the creation of international law?

By anon152142 — On Feb 13, 2011

international law is law, but it lacks a body that enforces it with full authority.

By anon151065 — On Feb 09, 2011

International law should be universally accepted and responsible by governments at the federal level. It should be apply at all levels. Even more important now then ever all due to the increasing abilities of the Internet and the world wide web. Criminals are getting away and fortunes are lost by victims all because there are no regulations or rules in place and enforceable by the authorities.

By anon134227 — On Dec 14, 2010

for us in Africa,international law is a disguised form of neocolonialism used by the "haves" to achieve the their ever unending hegemonic ambitions to discredit the socio-economic achievements of the "have nots". shame on them for we've realized that they are actually hypocrites. innocent

By Ahmad Erianto — On Nov 25, 2010

Although international law has no sanction in some cases, it does in some cases, so in my view international law is truly law. But there is something that I do not agree in this paper.

Please don’t make the religion as such a matter of implementation for international law. On one side, the paper said that religion is a sensitive matter, but in fact the paper tells about the religion, and sure in this case the paper has discredited the religion. --Erianto. Thank you

By anon108329 — On Sep 02, 2010

would a degree in international Law be a good subject in order to be able to work for the UNHCR?

And also, would you be officially a lawyer when you complete the degree and all the trainings?

By anon97236 — On Jul 19, 2010

International law must be practiced worldwide. These guide us to a better protection of human rights. --czar

By anon94790 — On Jul 10, 2010

There is no international law. There is only law of jungle that is might is right. Israel has been killing Palestinians brutally but UN has not been able able to stop. The USA has devastated Iraq and killed thousands of innocent Iraqis and still killing more and more afghans but no law stops USA and Israel from this.

By anon85994 — On May 23, 2010

irrespective of how we see it, international law remains law because it is obeyed by almost if not all the state. even when it is disobeyed this does not stop it from being law, since the disobedience of national law does not deprive it of its legal nature.

By anon82369 — On May 05, 2010

where do international laws take effect on the open ocean.

By anon79244 — On Apr 21, 2010

i agree with most of comments that international laws mean nothing. they are just designed by powerful countries to impose on weak countries in order to fulfill their interests.

By bhremr — On Mar 02, 2010

ıs there credibility in international law according to political realism?

By bhremr — On Mar 02, 2010

what is the role of international law according to political realism?

By anon61123 — On Jan 18, 2010

International laws are selective and subjective. It only favors the rich. George Bush and Tony Blair by international standards should face the the criminal courts and yet, it only targets the weak in the world. Ekow.

By anon60741 — On Jan 15, 2010

"I don't think that international law is really a law,if it is then only for weak countries like Pakistan, and not for powerful states like America and Israel."

The question of whether something is followed is not determinate of whether it should be followed. For example there are plenty of murders happening in the UK but no-one is trying to argue that the legal prohibitions against murder aren't law. International law is lex imperfecta as is domestic law.

By anon57176 — On Dec 20, 2009

interesting question, but in order to answer it you must ask yourself, what is law?

By anon56030 — On Dec 11, 2009

I don't think that international law is really a law,if it is then only for weak countries like Pakistan, and not for powerful states like America and Israel.

By anon55225 — On Dec 06, 2009

It depends on the school of thought you ascribe to. It is law that is being used by the powerful to deny the poor of what is rightfully theirs.

By anon50477 — On Oct 29, 2009

No it isn't really law, there are no sanctions as such. Take Iran for example. It won't stop its nuclear activities although it's supposed to as per the agreement it signed with the IAEA. Israel is illegally occupying Gaza and there is nothing the international community has been able to do about it -- not even the US has been able to put a stop to it. War crimes are perpetrated every day, the neighbor policy has been practiced by the Israelis, the element of proportionality has not been respected and as per the israeli government's own papers, more than Gaza, a portion of indisputably Palestinian land is now also occupied by the Jews. The world knows it and the Goldstone Report proves it, where is international law in all that? There is no law. Saddam Hussein was executed for crimes against humanity while George Bush didn't even face a prosecution. law is supposed to be erga omnes. it has to apply to each and every person and to respect a certain amount of objectivity for it to be called law. Selective, subjective and relative 'law' cannot be law. 'Law' without any kind of discriminate enforcement cannot be law. 'Law', which is not recognized as such by everyone cannot be law.

International law is illusionary rhetoric to fit the purpose of those who are really running the world. --Mona

By anon47093 — On Oct 01, 2009

Do you think its a good move to study international law. Can i make a difference and money?

By anon45063 — On Sep 13, 2009

I concur with the fact that you said international law is a law because it is expressly stated. I am of the view that laws are also rules and it imposes an obligation to a certain conduct(Hart). In international law if you reneged your expressed obligation(treaty) there is a sanction. The same is there if persons do not obey the laws of the land.

By anon44725 — On Sep 10, 2009

what evidence is substantial enough to prove that international law is really a law?

By anon34959 — On Jul 01, 2009

yes, because its written on paper and if you go against the law you will be punish so I considered it a law

By anon26835 — On Feb 19, 2009

Not really law, but more like basic guidelines set to protect one's civil and human rights as a person. So, good call on your part, but, law is probably the best word for it.

By msnuttika — On Oct 05, 2008

Is international law really law?

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