A very brief Introduction to Public International Law


This article was written by Ujjaini Chatterji a student of Symbiosis law School, Noida.

Public International Law, in the most basic sense of it, is the law that governs the relationship amongst different sovereign nation states, especially within the context of war, peace and security and the protection of territories. [1]  This, being the primary definition of International Law, the subject is not confined to a very narrow scope such. In fact, Public International Law has evolved constantly through History in its scope, perspective and definition. Public International Law related to diverse subjects and is understood through various developments in History, global politics and relations that resulted into various commitments through treaties, pacts, agreements and other forms of diplomatic commitments. There are over 45000 International treaties which would possibly fill around 1800 thick volumes that do, indeed sound intimidating to any beginner in the subject.  However, fortunately, thanks to online access, they are easily found on CD ROMs, Lexis, West law and various other internet websites.
Private International Law, on the other hand, deals with the private contracts, trade relations and other transactions and relationships in the International level amongst individuals.

This interplay of public and Private International relations, comprise of International Law. This article, shall, however, primarily focus on Public International Law and its scopes and understanding.

Treaties, govern every aspect of International relations and commerce including travel, telephone communications, television broadcasts, Human rights, trade and every other transaction with different countries. Breaches are, rather infrequent.

Now, the question, that often arises, is that, whether, at all, International Law is a Law, per se.  If International Law, is indeed, Law, then who enforces it?  There is no effective world judiciary, legislature or even a police force to implement the law. Then, does International Law simply stand as rhetoric of consolation without any specific force to enforce it? It often suspected that countries comply with International Law only out of convenience and when contrary interests emerge, they conveniently disregard the Law. Under the circumstances, the very concept of International Law has myriad interpretations and needless to say, they have undergone tremendous evolution through the years, from the Nuremberg Trial to the present day.

Although, there is no definite world Legislature, there are two structured ways of the formation International Law.  One is the form of bilateral treaties that countries negotiate and implement, much like Domestic Contracts. The second form of the legislative process is the form of multilateral treaties. Multilateral treaties, relate to the laws that are adopted by the United Nations or any Diplomatic Conference of States. This process, can sometimes, is very similar to the Domestic Legislature Process, with only certain exceptions. The most primary exception is that, the laws do not immediately go into effect when the United Nations or the Diplomatic Conference approves the text of the treaty.  Instead, the states, become bound by the treaty, as a Law binds them, only after the states, internally approve the Treaty in their own prescribed procedure.

There is, of course, no particular single International Judiciary to enforce International Law, however, there are numerous International Courts established by Treaty which, clarify, interpret and develop International Law and its Jurisprudence. Resolve disputes and impel nations to observe the Law. The most influential and active of these institutions is the International Court of Justice, the Law of Sea Tribunal, Western Europe’s two regional courts. One being, The European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg and the other is the European Court of Justice at Luxembourg. Alongside, there are two Security Council created International War Tribunals, (For the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda). There are, in addition to this, three hybrid criminal Tribunals, in, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Lebanon. There is also, a permanent International Court, established by treaty. International Law has also been dealt with numerous times in International tribunals, such as the U.S-Iran claims Tribunal. But most often, International Law is litigated in Domestic Courts.

Even though there is no absolute police force to ensure the observation of violation of International Law, and to have a constant and pervasive presence , there are, however certain very specific mechanisms, to enforce the effect of International Law. The gravest of the abuses of International Law can be dealt with complete seriousness as the United Security Council can give Economic Sanctions (Like it did against Rhodesia in 1996), freeze assets and even employ military force to compel nations to comply (like the UN did in against Korea in 1950). Both economic and military sanctions were given against Iraq in the year
In addition, domestic laws, constantly, work to incorporate International commitments through Treaties and pacts in themselves, and their state mechanisms like the Police Force help in enforcement of the process.

The Indian Constitution, in itself accommodates in International Law, and the necessary further needs to alter domestic laws for it. Article 253 of the Constitution, speaks about the Legislations that the parliament can make to give effect to International Agreements.  It completely empowers the Parliament, to make any law for the whole country, or a part of the Territory of India for ‘implementing any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country or countries or any other decision made at any International Conference, association or other body.”

Article 51, on similar lines, outlines the relationship between International Law and the National Laws and how they need to work in co ordination. The scope of this particular section was also discussed by Justice Sikri, in the judgment of Keshavanand Bharati v State of Kerala[2]. He observed,
“In view of Article 51 of the constitution this court must interpret language of the Constitution, if not intractable, which is after all a municipal law, in the light of United Nations Charter and the solemn declaration subscribed to by India”

Article 73 of the constitution, along with, Article 253, 260(6),363 (7),372, 378  and VII Schedule, entries 10-21 , all deal with the aspect of incorporating the scope of International Law in the Municipal Laws of India.
Similarly, Section 2 (6) of the Civil Procedure Code describes the meaning of a Foreign Judgement.  Section 44A describes the procedures, in which International decrees can be executed.

Areas of Public International Law
Public International Law, in itself is a very vast sphere and involves an understanding of various different branches under the broad subject. Public International Law includes, International Human Rights Law, Air Law, space Law, International Humanitarian Law, Laws of war, Laws of Conflict, Refugee Law, Law of the Sea, International Criminal Law, Disarmament and many others. The most intriguing aspect of Public International Law, is that, it accommodates, our own personal, political, social, Economical and other perspectives and it is in sync with our own ecosystem of regular living. Therefore, to pursue, International Law, one must not necessarily, forget his own communist ideology in order to appease a politically confused and hypocritically indifferent corporate senior. Instead, through Public International Law, one can work towards and  voice their views on Free Speech, Democracy, Politics, Global Affairs and Relations and all other areas which intrigue and matter to us. International Law, is that step forward from irresponsible and random Facebook posts and Blogs. International Law provides us with the Pedestal to understand the deeper sense of the issues and to look at solutions and be a part of the process of making a difference.

Sources of International Law can be customary Laws, Domestic Laws, treaties and agreements, and general Principals of law like Freedom from torture, Free Speech, Equality, Justice and Good Conscience.

Career Scope of International Law

International Law has various career prospects. One may choose to work with Government bodies or NGOs, in Public Policy spheres or the numerous International Organizations. Internships with Human Rights Commissions and NGOs like Amnesty International. One may choose to write a few Papers on their areas of interest in order to understand the concepts better. For clarity of Concepts, Malcolm Shaw’s book on Introduction to International Law is excellent.[3]  Further certain cases like the judgment of Nicaragua v U.S.A, Yugoslavia v U.S.A, the Lotus case, s.s Wimbeldon, United Kingdon v Iran and issues like the Iran crisis, ISIS, The never ending war etc. For the Historical and Theoretical Foundations, State v Dosso(1958), Jilani v State of Punjab(1972), Golakhnath v State of Punjab can be helpful. One must stay updated with the latest happening and current affairs and understand the deeper connections and International relations. One amy Voluteer in United Nations, Online, through this link : https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en/vol/members/opportunity/application_form.html?id=60182. A masters and specialization In International Law can be done in India and abroad. One should select the courses as per his  or her interests and do his personal research very well. It is important to first figure out the preferred subject and the branch of the same. Some Social work internships and later, fellowships like LAMP can be helpful in the process.

List of Treaties and Conventions

  • Articles On Diplomatic Protection 2006
  • Articles On Responsibility Of States For Internationally Wrongful Acts 2001
  • Basel Convention On The Control Of Transboundary Movements Of Hazardous Wastes And Their Disposal 1989
  • Charter Of The United Nations 1945
  • Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, 1995
  • Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000
  • Convention Between France And Great Britain For Defining The Limits Of Exclusive Fishing Rights 1839 • Convention For The Protection Of Submarine Cables 1884
  • Convention For The Regulation Of Aerial Navigation 1919
  • Convention On Offences Committed On Board Aircraft 1963
  • Convention On International Liability For Damage Caused By Space Objects
  • Convention On Registration Of Objects Launched Into Outer Space, 1974
  • Convention On The Protection Of The Under Water Cultural Heritage, 2001
  • Covenant Of The League Of Nations 1919 • Draft Articles On The Responsibility Of International Organisations 2011
  • Geneva Convention On The Continental Shelf,1958
  • Geneva Convention On The High Seas, 1958
  • Hague Convention For The Pacific Settlement Of International Disputes, 1899
  • Havana Convention On Asylum 1928 • International Court Of Justice Statute 1945
  • Treaty Of Peace, Versailles 1919
  • Un Convention On The Law Of The Sea, 1982
  • Vienna Convention On Consular Relations 1963
  • Vienna Convention On Diplomatic Relations, 1961
  • Vienna Conventions On The Law Of Treaties 1969

[1] Kelly Vinopal, Researching Public International Law, https://www.asil.org/sites/default/files/ERG_PUBLIC_INT.pdf

[2] AIR 1973 SC 1461

[3] Shaw Malcolm N., International Law, (Cambridge University Press, USA: 7th Edn, 2014)

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