What is international law?

“State” is a term used in international law to describe a country or nation considered to be an organized political community under one government. International law is a set of rules and customs that govern the relationships between countries, known as states.

Usually when we think about laws, we think about the system of rules and penalties established and enforced by the government. In a democracy, the “rule of law” applies to everyone in society and is intended to strike a balance between individual freedoms and the needs of the society. If a member of society breaks one of these laws, they will be punished by the state after due process is followed. On the other hand, if the government of a state takes unfair or illegal action against a citizen or group, the state’s constitution may allow citizens to challenge their governments in local (domestic) courts. If this does not solve the problem, other laws, such as international human rights treaties, will sometimes allow citizens to take their complaints outside their state to international legal bodies.

The Rule of Law

The rule of law is a fundamental legal principle that states that the law applies equally to all persons and that no one, neither individual nor government, is above the law. The rule of law means that government officials cannot make up or change the rules without consulting anyone else. It also means that decisions should not be made arbitrarily (without reason or justification).

Every country, or state, has its own set of laws and legal system. The laws of one country will apply to everyone in that country, but generally do not apply outside that country’s borders. These laws are called “national” or “domestic” laws. Domestic laws are the laws that affect people in their daily lives – usually divided between civil laws, such as employment laws and highway speed limits, and criminal laws against harmful activities such as murder and trafficking illicit drugs. A country’s constitution is usually the supreme law of the land, which ‘trumps’ other national or local laws if there is a conflict between them. Each country develops its own system of laws, so there are many different systems of domestic law. For example, countries that are members of the Commonwealth, such as Canada, still generally follow British traditions of “Common Law.” However, in Canada, the province of Quebec follows the French legal traditions of civil law and Canada’s national criminal law, set out in the Criminal Code of Canada.

International law picks up where domestic law ends. It governs the way countries interact with one another, and in specific circumstances, also sets how and when an international government, like the United Nations, intervenes in how a government interacts with its citizens or other people within the state. Canada’s relationship with another country, such as Germany, the United States or Mexico, will be governed by international law through agreements that are bilateral (between two countries) or multilateral (among three or more countries). International law applies across borders, and unlike domestic laws, there is only one system of international law.

Some of the main subjects of international law include:

  • Human rights: ensuring the fundamental rights of every individual
  • Regulating the use of armed force: making universal rules so that countries resolve differences through peaceful means
  • Protection of individuals during times of war
  • Trade and development
  • The law of the sea
  • Environmental issues and climate change: creating universal rules for the preservation of natural resources and protection of the environment
  • Transportation: setting safety standards for international travel by air, rail and sea
  • Telecommunications: setting rules for building and maintaining communication systems that cross state borders