Who is Governed by International Law?


Under international law, a state is a country that meets the following criteria. A state has:

  • A permanent population
  • Control over a defined territory
  • A government
  • The ability to enter into relations with other states

Countries recognized as states have certain rights and responsibilities defined by international law and custom. They have the right of sovereignty, meaning that the state has exclusive power or jurisdiction over its territory and population. This power can only be legally interfered with when certain requirements of international law are met. There is also formal equality among states, which means that even if one country is not actually equal to another in terms of military strength, economy or political stature, it will possess the same basic rights and responsibilities as that or any other state.

States also have the right to be free from intervention in their domestic affairs. This means that other countries should not intervene in the legal or political decisions made by a state; however, this does not mean that states cannot try to influence other states. States have certain responsibilities, which include a duty to fulfill their international obligations in good faith and to respect international human rights.

International Governance Organizations

International governance organizations are organizations that are set up by a legal agreement (treaty) between two or more states. Depending on what the treaty that created the organization says, international law will apply to international governance organizations and they will have certain rights, duties and powers under the law. For example, the United Nations (UN) is the largest and most comprehensive international governance organization with wide-reaching powers. The UN is a parent body, composed of agencies or organs with specific mandates, such as the UN Security Council. The UN Security Council is the only UN agency able to order the use of military force; none of the other agencies (such as the World Health Organization) are able to do so.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are organizations set up by individuals or groups, not states. Some examples of large international NGOs that influence international law are Amnesty International, Oxfam, Greenpeace and the Red Cross. NGOs do not typically have rights, duties or powers under international law; rather they advocate for certain outcomes based on their founding values (such as social justice) and act as an intermediary between the state-dominated international legal system and individuals.

Individuals and Corporations

In general, individuals and corporations do not have the ability to enter into legal relations (such as treaties) or have legal rights and responsibilities under international law. For example, unlike states, individuals and corporations cannot appoint ambassadors or declare war. Many of the rules of international law exist for the benefit of individual persons and corporations, but that does not necessarily mean that the rules create rights for those individuals and corporations. For the most part, the rights concerning individuals and corporations do not exist directly under international law; rather, states have an obligation to grant domestic law rights to the individuals or companies concerned.