The nature and development of international law

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Adv. Anuradha Nashikkar


In the long march of mankind from the cave to the computer a central role has always been played by the idea of law – the idea that order is necessary and chaos inimical to a just and stable existence. Every society, whether it is large or small, powerful or weak, has created for itself a framework of principles within which to develop. What can be done, what cannot be done, permissible acts, forbidden acts, have all been spelt out within the consciousness of that community. Progress, with its inexplicable leaps and bounds, has always been based upon the group as men and women combine to pursue commonly accepted goals, whether these are hunting animals, growing food or simply making money.

Law is that element which binds the members of the community together in their adherence to recognised values and standards. It is both permissive in allowing individuals to establish their own legal relations with rights and duties, as in the creation of contracts, and coercive, as it punishes those who infringe its regulations. Law consists of a series of rules regulating behaviour, and reflecting, to some extent, the ideas and preoccupations of the society within which it functions.

And so it is with what is termed international law, with the important difference that the principal subjects of international law are nation-states, not individual citizens. There are many contrasts between the law within a country (municipal law) and the law that operates outside and between states, international organisations and, in certain cases, individuals. International law itself is divided into conflict of laws (or private international law as it is sometimes called) and public international law (usually just termed international law).

1 The former deals with those cases, within particular legal systems, in which foreign elements obtrude, raising questions as to the application of foreign law or the role of foreign courts.

2 For example, if two Englishmen make a contract in France to sell goods situated in Paris, an English court would apply French law as regards the validity of that contract. By contrast, public international law is not simply an adjunct of a legal order, but a separate system altogether,

3 Public international law covers relations between states in all their myriad forms, from war to satellites, and regulates the operations of the many international institutions. It may be universal or general, in which case the stipulated rules bind all the states (or practically all depending upon the nature of the rule), or regional, whereby a group of states linked geographically or ideologically may recognise special rules applying only to them, for example, the practice of diplomatic asylum that has developed to its greatest extent in Latin America.

4 The rules of international law must be distinguished from what is called international comity, or practices such as saluting the flags of foreign warships at sea, which are implemented solely through courtesy and are not regarded as legally binding.

5 Similarly, the mistake of confusing international law with international morality must be avoided. While they may meet at certain points, the former discipline is a legal one both as regards its content and its form, while the concept of international morality is a branch of ethics. This does not mean, however, that international law can be divorced from its values. In this chapter and the next, the characteristics of the international legal system and the historical and theoretical background necessary to a proper appreciation of the part to be played by the law in international law will be examined.

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