International Law Definition Nature and Purpose of Law

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 02:57 -- Umar Farooq

Definition of International Law

According to Encarta Encyclopedia, "International Law is principles, rules, and standards that govern nations and other participants in international affairs in their relations with one another. In other words, International law is the law of the international community."  Following are some of the definitions of international law by different jurists.

According to Oppenheim, "International national law is the name for the body of customary and conventional rules, which are considered legally binding by civilized states in their intercourse with one another."

Fenwick says, "It is the body of rules accepted by the general community of nations, as defining their rights and the means of procedure by, which those rights may be protected or violations of them redressed."

Briefly defines it as, "It is the body of rules and principles of action, which are binding upon civilized states in their relations with one another."

To me international law is, "The rules regulating international relations."

According to Subimal Mukerjee (Indian), "It is a law for equitable and just regulation of international relations within world community."

According to J.G. Starke, "It is that body of law, which states feel themselves bound to observe and therefore do commonly observe in then relations with each other and, which includes also:

The rules of law relating to the functioning of international institutions or organizations, their relations with each other and their relations with states and individuals.

Certain rules of law relating to individuals and. non-state entities so far as the rights and duties of such individuals and non-state entities are the concern of international community.

Simply International law means a body of generally accepted principles and rules controlling the conduct of national states, non-state entities, international organizations, individuals and corporations.

Nature of International Law (Is International Law a Law of or Not)?

What is the legal status of international law whether international law is 'law' in the true sense or not. The question is still under hot debate among jurists. Regarding the nature of international law, some writers, like Zimmer and Willoughby are ambiguous as to whether it is a law or not. Since international law appears to control or even affect states in their actual search of 'very important national interest', which are often narrow and selfish, doubts are often expressed that international law is law.

A group believes that it is not a true law. It is nothing but international morality consisting of opinions and sentiments working among sovereign nations of the world. It is not binding as it is unsupported by the authority of a state. There is no capacity of sanctions against law violators. So, they support their view by saying that international law is not law but morality having only41 moral force. Thinkers like Hobbes, Austin, Holland, Zimmerli, Willughby, etc., emphasis that international law is not law. Holland even went to the extent of calling it as 'the vanishing point of jurisprudence'. For him it is law by courtesy only, because it has only moral sanction and no teeth. It means it is applicable only if states make themselves bound morally to accept it otherwise it has no adjudicative authority. Writers like Hall, Lawrence, Oppenheim, etc., maintain that international law not only operates as law but is distinct from international morality both with regard to the nature of its rules as well as its sanctions. Oppenheim however admits that international law is a weaker law, because 'it is a law between and not above the state.

Now the question is how to reconcile the views of its proponents and opponents. The controversy rests upon the definition of law, which one may choose to adopt. Austin would not accept it as true law because it is not the will of a political superior.

Holland would reject it as law because it cannot be enforced by a sovereign political authority. To these writers, law implies a lawgiver and an institution capable to enforce it. Thus, those who measure international law by national or municipal law believe that absence of centralized legislature, executive and judicial authority disqualified it as true law.

What is law? Those rules, which are made, applied and adjudicated by competent authority. In the light of this definition, international law is not strictly law. But keeping in view its utility to regulate relations among nations, it is then law.

The only strong solution of this controversy is solved to a large by Oppenheim's definition of law. He defines law "As a body of rules for human conduct within a community, which by common consent of this community shall be enforced by external power." Now the family of nations may be regarded as international community where have grown certain rules to govern inter-state conduct and the application of these rules is sanctioned by the consent of international community.

Kinds of International Law

  1. Public International Law: It prevails universally in all over the world.
  2. Private International Law: It is enforced only between some of states.

Purpose of International Law

The purposes of international law include resolution of problems of a regional or global scope (such as environmental pollution or boundary tussles), regulation of areas outside the control of any one nation (such as outer space or the high seas), and adoption of common rules for multinational activities (such as air transport or postal service). International law also aims to maintain peaceful international relations when possible and resolve international tensions through pacific means when they develop, to prevent. needless suffering during wars, and to improve the human condition during peace.


Enforcement of international law is often difficult because nations are sovereign powers because states prefer their own interests on the international community. Further, the mechanisms of enforcement are yet not well developed. Enforcement may be effectively achieved, however, through die actions of individual nations, agencies of international organizations such as the United Nations and international courts. The United Nations Security Council can authorize economic, sanctions, diplomatic sanctions, or military force to maintain or restore international peace and security.