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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: April 2019

1 - The nature of international law



What would the world be like without international law? We cannot really answer this question but we do know that the world relies on this body of law to deal with important and difficult issues. International law helps develop our aspirations for the international community and facilitates problem solving around such issues as terrorism, the increasing spread of diseases, and the need to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate against the effects of climate change. It contributes to creating order in the world and also to the deployment of political ambitions, which in turn can sometimes create additional problems for the international community, such as States claiming new territory or resources that are disputed. Importantly, it also enables a world without a central government to generate solutions for emerging and complex issues and problems, such as cyber-security and warfare.

Not all international issues and problems are, however, easily identifiable as being within the purview of international law. An example of a complex international issue is the rise of globally significant cyber-attacks that do not appear to be State-sponsored or have State institutions as their main targets. However, given the significance of such attacks to the international community, many have assumed that international law and its institutions would have a central role in dealing with them. International law and its institutions, however, have limited powers and State institutions usually have to coordinate enforcement activities against foreign hackers. Domestic problems or issues, on the other hand, sometimes raise significant international law issues despite appearing as relevant only to the State concerned. For example, increasing taxes in Australia on domestically consumed movies, rather than on the income of nationally registered companies, acts as an import tariff on corporations that do not have Australian operations. Whether Australia can impose taxes on domestic consumption of goods and services has to be assessed in terms of implications for its international trade obligations. International law can, therefore, address and deal with very specific local issues and problems.

International law is commonly defined as the rules governing the legal relationship between States. International law provides a framework for understanding what rights and duties States have in relation to each other, and other international actors such as the United Nations (UN).

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Besson, Samantha and Tasioulas, John (eds), The Philosophy of International Law, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010
Brunnee, Jutta and Toope, Stephen, Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: An Interactional Account, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010
Johns, Fleur, Non-Legality in International Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013
O'Connell, Mary Ellen, The Power and Purpose of International Law, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008
Orford, Anne and Hoffmann, Florian (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2016)
Simpson, Gerry (ed), The Nature of International Law, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2001