International law is the body of legal rules that apply between sovereign states and such
other entities as have been granted international personality (status acknowledged by the
international community). The rules of international law are of a normative character, that
is, they prescribe towards conduct, and are potentially designed for authoritative
interpretation by an international judicial authority and by being capable of enforcement
by the application of external sanctions. The International Court of Justice is the principal
judicial organ of the United Nations, which succeeded the Permanent Court of
International Justice after World War II. Article 92 of the charter of the United Nations
The International Court of justice shall be the principal judicial organ of the United
nations. It shall function in accordance with the annexed Statute, which is based upon the
Statute of the Permanent court of International Justice and forms an integral part of the
The commands of international law must be those that the states impose upon themselves,
as states must give consent to the commands that they will follow. It is a direct
expression of raison d’etat, the “interests of the state”, and aims to serve the state, as well
as protect the state by giving its rights and duties. This is done through treaties and other
consensual engagements which are legally binding.
The case-law of the ICJ is an important aspect of the UN’s contribution to the
development of international law. It’s judgements and advisory opinions permeates into
the international legal community not only through its decisions as such but through the
wider implications of its methodology and reasoning.
The successful resolution of the border dispute between Burkina Faso and Mali in the
1986 Frontier Dispute case illustrates the utility of judicial decision as a means of
settlement in territorial disputes. The case was submitted to a Chamber of the ICJ
pursuant to a special agreement concluded by the parties in 1983. In December 1985,
while written submissions were being prepared, hostilities broke out in the disputed area.
A cease-fire was agreed, and the Chamber directed the continued observance of the
cease-fire, the withdrawal of troops within twenty days, and the avoidance of actions
tending to aggravate the dispute or prejudice its eventual resolution. Both Presidents
publicly welcomed the judgement and indicated their intention to comply with it. In the
Fisheries Jurisdiction case (United Kingdom v. Iceland , 1974) the ICJ contributed to the
firm establishment in law of the idea that mankind needs to conserve the living resources
of the sea and must respect these resources. The Court observed:
It is one of the advances in maritime international law, resulting from the intensification
of fishing, that the former laissez-faire treatment ofthe living resources of the sea in the
high seas has been replaced by a recognition of a duty to have due regard of the rights of
other States and the needs of conservation for the benefit of all. Consequently, both
parties have the obligation to keep inder review the fishery resources in the disputed
waters and to examine together, in the light of scientific and other available information,
the measures required for the conservation and development, and equitable exploitation,
of these resources, taking into account any international agreement in force between
them, such as the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Convention of 24 January 1959, as well
as such other agreements as may be reached in the matter in the course of further
negotiation. The Court also held that the concept of preferential rights in fisheries is not
This is not to say that the preferential rights of a coastal State in a special situation are a
static concept, in the sense that the degree of the coastal State’s preference is to be
considered as for ever at some given moment. On the contrary, the preferential rights are a function of the exceptional dependence of such a coastal State on the fisheries in
adjacent waters and may, therefore, vary as the extent of that dependence changes.
The Court’s judgement on this case contributes to the development of the law of the sea
by recognizing the concept of the preferential rights of a coastal state in the fisheries of
the adjacent waters, particularly if that state is in a special situation with its population
dependent on those fisheries. Moreover, the Court proceeds further to recognise that the
law pertaining to fisheries must accept the primacy of the requirement of conservation
based on scientific data. The exercise of preferential rights of the coastal state, as well as
the hisoric rights of other states dependent on the same fishing grounds, have to be
subject to the overriding consideration of proper conservation of the fishery resources for
Some cases in which sanctions are threatened, however, see no actual implementation.
The United States, for example, did not impose measures on those Latin American states
that nationalized privately owned American property, despite legislation that authorizes
the President to discontinue aid in the absence of adequate compensation.
Enforcement measures are not the sole means of UN sanction. Skeptics of the coercive
theory of international law note that forceful sanctions through the United Nations are
limited to situations involving threats to the peace, breaches of peace, and acts of
aggressiion. In all other instances of noncompliance of international law, the charter’s
own general provisions outlawing the threat or use of force actually prevent forceful
sanction. Those same skeptics regard this as an appropriate paradox in a decentralized
state system of international politics. Nonetheless, other means of collective sanction
through the UN involve diplomatic intervention and economic sanctions.
In 1967 the Security Council decided to isolate Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for
its policy of racial separation following its unilateral declaration of independence from
Britain. As in other cases of economic sanctions, effectiveness in the Rhodesian situation
was limited by the problems of achieving universal participation, and the resistance of
national elites to external coercion. With respect to universal participation, even states
usually sympathetic to Britain’s policy demonstrated weak compliance.
The decentralization of sanctions remains one of the major weaknesses of international law. Although international bodies sometimes make decisions in the implementation of
sanctions, member states must implement them. The states are the importers and
exporters in the international system. They command industrial economies and the
passage of goods across national boundaries.
Furthermore, the UN is wholly dependent on its members on operating funds, so no
matter what decisional authority its members give it, its ability to take action not only
depends on its decision but also on means. Without the support, the wealth and the
material assistance of national governments, the UN is incapable of effective sanctions.
The resistance of governments to a financially independent UN arises principally on their
insistence on maintaining control over sanctioning processes in international politics.
Despite sweeping language regarding “threats to peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of
aggression”, the role of the United Nationsin the enforcement of international law is quite
limited. Indeed the purpose of the UN is not to enforce international law, but to preserve,
restore and ensure political peace and security. The role of the Security Council is to
enforce that part of international law that is either created or encompassed by the Charter
of the United Nations. When aggression occurs, the members of the Council may decide
politically – but are not obliged legally – to undertake collective action that will have
sanctioning result. In instances of threats to or breaches of the peace short of war, they
may decide politically to take anticipatory action short of force. Moreover, it is for the
members of the Security Council to determine when a threat to peace, a breach of peace,
or an act of aggression has occured. Even thi determination is made on political rather
than legal criteria. The Security Council may have a legal basis for acting, but self-interst
determines how each of it members votes, irrespective of how close to aggression the
incident at issue may be. Hence by virtue of both its constitutional limitations and the
exercise of sovereign prerogatives by its members, the security council’s role as a
sanctioning device in international law is sharply restricted.
As the subject matter of the law becomes more politicized, states are less willing to enter
into formal regulation, or do so only with loopholes for escape from apparent constraints.
In this area, called the law of community, governments are generally less willing to
sacrifice their soverein liberties. In a revolutionary international system where change is
rapid and direction unclear, the integrity of the law of community is weak, and
compliance of its often flaccid norms is correspondingly uncertain.
The law of the political framework resides above these other two levels and consists of the legal norms governing the ultimate power relations of states. This is the most
politicized level of international relations; hence pertinent law is extremely primitive.
Those legal norms that do exist suffer from all the political machinations of the states
who made them. States have taken care to see that their behaviour is only minimally
constrained; the few legal norms they have created always provide avenues of escape
such as the big-power veto in the UN Security Council.
Despite the many failures and restrictions of international law, material interdpendence,
especially among the states of equivalent power, may foster the growth of positive legal
principles. In addition, as friendships and emnities change,, some bilateral law may cease
to be observed among new emnities, but new law may arise among new friends who have
newfound mutual interests. In the meantime, some multicultural law may have been
developed. Finally, research suggests that the social effects of industrialization are
universal and that they result in intersocial tolerances that did not exist during periods of
disparate economic capability. On social, political, ane economic grounds, therefore,
international law is intrinsic to the transformation and modernization of the international
system, even though the “law of the political context” has remained so far.