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Essay on the Legal Nature of International

Law
By Suhana Dhawan
It is a controversial issue whether the principles and rules governing the relations between States
are merely a body of rules of international morality, without legal force, or whether International
Law is in reality law, a branch of Jurisprudence proper.
It was decided in West Rand Central Gold Mining Company v. Rex that no principle of
International Law was enforceable in British Courts until it had been formally adopted into the
body of the Municipal Law by an Act of Parliament.
The Analytical School of Jurists, founded by Bentham and Austin, deny to International Law the
status of law. They contend that law is a command issued by a determinate human superior to an
inferior and its disobedience is accompanied by punishment.
Law must also be precise and definite with regard to its origin and obligation. But in the
community of nations, comprising sovereign States, there is no determinate superior political
authority to issue commands and enforce sanctions and penalties.
If it be presumed that there is one to command and others to obey, it establishes their subordinate
status and with that they disappear as sovereign States. Nor are there courts with power to
enforce International Law or impose penalties for disobedience.
States, of course, refer matters of dispute arising between them to tribunals for arbitration, but
the decisions of such tribunals are not binding on the sovereign States.
It is for them to accept or reject such decisions and there is no authority competent and powerful
to enforce and punish the recalcitrant States. The sanction of International Law is, therefore,
customary. The law which rests on custom, consent and agreement cannot be law.
It is only a sense of moral obligation that makes it binding and at the best it can be described as
international morality. Lord Salisbury, while addressing the House of Lords, once said, I think,
my Lords, we are misled in this matter by the facility with which we use the phrase International
Law.
International Law has not any existence in the sense in which the term law is usually understood.
It depends generally on the prejudices of the writers of the textbooks. It can be enforced by no
tribunal, and, therefore, to apply to it the phrase Law is to some extent misleading.
Similarly, Lord Coleridge observed in The Queen v. Keyn (1876): Strictly speaking,
international law is an inexact expression, and it is apt to mislead if its inexactness is not kept in
mind.

Law implies a law-giver, and a tribunal capable of enforcing it and coercing its transgressors.
But there is no common law-giver to sovereign States, and no tribunal has the power to bind
them by decree or coerce them if they transgress.
But modern writers accept International Law as law in the real sense of the term. They regard
Austins theory of sovereignty in its international relations as not only a legal fiction but a
baneful and dangerous dogma which ought to be abandoned, and that notion should be expunged
from the literature of international law.
It is asserted that sovereignty of the State does not imply that the States cannot mutually agree to
follow certain rules of conduct for common safely and well-being.
Chief Justice Marshall, of the United States Supreme Court, recognized the absolute and
exclusive authority of the State over all persons and things within its territory.
But he admitted that considerations of mutual benefit and advantage in practice made necessary
a relaxation of that absolute and complete jurisdiction which sovereignty is said to confer. Law
is not always the command of a determinate human superior.
There are various other sources of law /too. No .one can ignore the influence of customs and the
common law. Common law does not emanate from the legislature. Nor do customs.
Moreover, law must adjust itself to the social needs of the community. International Law is the
result of the experience of ages, and its rules have been evolved and accepted as governing the
conduct of States in times of war and peace.
People do not obey laws merely for fear of punishment. Even in the presence of the coercive
authority of the State positive laws are disobeyed every day by scores of people. Violation of
laws does not mean that they lose their significance as laws. The sanction of all laws goes back
to public opinion.
The sanction of International Law, too, has the same basis as the sanction of ordinary law. It is
the force of the minds which made these rules and it is the force of the minds which impresses
their practical utility and enjoins obedience. States are obviously ready for orderly behaviour and
anticipate orderly behaviour by their fellow States.
The society is never run by the law of jungle, nor even on what George Jellinek called anarchic
law. Men have a psychological preference for order over disorder, especially when the disorder
involves war.
As regards the sanction behind International Law, it is now conceded by all that a world public
opinion is rapidly growing to provide adequate sanctions.
The United Nations crystallises world public opinion and it has means at its disposal to coerce a
delinquent State by applying either political or economic sanctions, as it did in raising an army to
fight against the aggression of China in Korea and in a number of other countries too.

Sometimes individual States themselves apply these sanctions, as did Britain and France against
Italy in 1935. The success of the United Nations in raising the Emergency Force in Egypt and the
immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli forces from Egyptian territory, once again,
demonstrated that the only support and sanction necessary for the effective operation of
International Law is a broad based public opinion. Like individuals, States wish to enjoy the
prestige of a good reputation.
On material grounds, though not on these alone, they value the friendship of their fellows; above
all, they realise that grossly illegal conduct may inflame foreign opinion and lead to the vicarious
enforcement of their obligations.
Even if it is admitted that absence of authority to enforce its orders is the weakest point in the
nature of International Law, and States have very often flouted its prescriptions by their willful
actions, still, absence of sufficient authority to enforce the provisions of International Law or its
deliberate violation by some States does not mean that it ceases to be law real and proper.
As a matter of fact, even the ordinary statute law is obeyed chiefly because of social sanctions
operating through public opinion and, where these are absent or weak, is honoured more in the
breach rather than in the observance.
It is also untrue to say that there are no courts to decide international disputes and apply
International Law. Arbitration or the settlement of differences between independent States has
assumed considerable proportions since the establishment of the now-defunct League of Nations.
The United Nations makes provision for the International Court of Justice. The purposes of the
United Nations Charter include the adjustment or settlement of international disputes in
conformity with the principles of justice and international law. Legal forms are used in the
International Court of Justice and in arbitral procedure, authorities and precedents are quoted as
in courts of law.
Finally, there are courts in every country which try prize cases in accordance with the provisions
of International Law. Sir Henry Maine and others have shown that there have been systems of
law which were enforced independently of the State or its courts of law.
World opinion is now veering round the point that the individual may be given an international
status by accepting him as a subject of International Law and consequently makes his rights
enforceable against his own government. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights may
be considered the harbinger of such a move and if it succeeds, at no distant date an international
bill of rights will take concrete shape.
Lauterpacht says in this regard, As a result of Charter of United Nations as well as other
changes in International Law the individual has acquired a status and a stature which has
transformed him from an object of international compassion into a subject of international
rights.

This apart, the Nuremberg trial and punishment of Germans guilty of international crimes has
given a new dimension to the nature and scope of International Law. International criminal law
has now emerged as an effective instrument to punish those guilty of heinous international
crimes.
The principles of International Law, it may be added, have been built up by legal reasoning and
are applied in a legal manner. All civilised countries accept International Law as a part of their
Municipal Law and their legislatures do not make legislation opposed to the provision of
International Law.
Piracy, for example, is prohibited by International Law and no State will pass legislation
permitting piracy. Laws of no civilized States recognize slavery or permit its existence.
The Weimar Constitution of the German Republic made a significant departure when it enacted
that the rules of International Law, universally recognised, formed part of federal German law
and as such had obligatory force.
Similarly, the Estonian Constitution adopted the generally accepted precepts of International
Law as an inseparable part of her judicial order. So too, the Austrian Constitution.
It is, therefore, concluded that the principles of International Law are fundamentally the same as
those of the Municipal Law. The former, like the latter, grows and develops in response to the
spirit of each age and changing conditions of society.
Order is the essence of human life, but order is precarious and hollow until International Law is
assured. International Law may, thus, be defined as a body of those rules of conduct which
reason deduces as consonant with justice from the nature of the society existing among
independent nations; with such definitions and modifications as may be established by general
consent.
It is law proper and is not a mere collection of moral rules. Its doctrines, as Hall says, have been
elaborated by a course of legal reasoning; in international controversies precedents are used in a
strictly legal manner, the opinions of writers are quoted and relied upon for the same purposes as
those for which the opinions of writers are invoked under a system of municipal law; the conduct
of States is attacked, defended and judged within the range of international law by reference to
legal considerations alone; and finally, it is recognised that there is an international morality
distinct from law, violation of which gives no formal ground of complaint, however odious the
action of the ill-doer may be.
The only baffling point in this context is that although all civilised States have accepted rules of
International Law as binding upon them, yet they are enforced by every State according to its
own moral standard or convenience. And the moral standard of every State is influenced by the
economic and political tendencies of the world as a whole and the expediency of the State
concerned.

Some States make a bid for world power and they enforce the principles of International Law
according to their own convenience. If all the States were to pledge themselves scrupulously to
the accepted principles of International Law and adhere to its ideals, much international hostility
can be avoided and the controversy whether International Law is a law or not becomes futile.