Legal Dictionary

international law

Legal Definition of international law


  1. A combination of treaties and customs which regulates the conduct of states amongst themselves. The highest judicial authority of international law is the International Court of Justice and the administrative authority is the United Nations.

Definition of international law


international law (uncountable)

  1. Law which involves, for instance, the United Nations, maritime law, international criminal law and the Geneva Convention.
  2. Law which addresses the question of which legal jurisdiction cases may be heard in.
  3. Law covering situations where the laws of nation states are held inapplicable when conflicting with a supranational legal system.
  4. The term commonly used for referring to the system of implicit and explicit agreements that bind together nations.

Further reading

International law is the set of rules generally regarded and accepted as binding in relations between states and nations. It differs from national legal systems in that it only concerns nations rather than private citizens. National law may become international law when treaties delegate national jurisdiction to supranational tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights or the International Criminal Court. Treaties such as the Geneva Conventions may require national law to conform.

The term "international law" can refer to three distinct legal disciplines:

  • Public international law, which governs the relationship between provinces and international entities. It includes these legal fields: treaty law, law of sea, international criminal law and the laws of war or international humanitarian law.
  • Private international law, or conflict of laws, which addresses the questions of (1) which jurisdiction may hear a case, and (2) the law concerning which jurisdiction applies to the issues in the case.
  • Supranational law or the law of supranational organizations, which concerns regional agreements where the laws of nation states may be held inapplicable when conflicting with a supranational legal system when that nation has a treaty obligation to a supranational collective.

The two traditional branches of the field are:

Sources of international law

All sources of international law are from treaties and covenants which regulate relations between nations. They have been influenced by a range of political and legal theories. During the 20th century, it was recognized by legal positivists that a sovereign state could limit its authority to act by consenting to an agreement according to the principle pacta sunt servanda. This consensual view of international law was reflected in the 1920 Statute of the Permanent Court of International Justice, which was succeeded by the United Nations Charter. and is preserved in the United Nations Article 7 of the 1946 Statute of the International Court of Justice.

Sources of Public International Law: [Article 38(1) of the ICJ Statute] 1. The Court, whose function is to decide in accordance with international law such disputes as are submitted to it, shall apply:

    a. international conventions, whether

general or particular, establishing rules expressly recognised by the contesting states.

    b. international custom,

as evidence of a general practice accepted as law

    c. the general principles of law

recognised by civilized nations

    d. subject to the provisions of Article 59, judicial decisions and the teachings of the

most highly qualified publicists of the various nations, as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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