International Law FAQs
How is a sovereign state defined?
Does a state need to get recognition from other states?
When can a state use military force against another state?
What does international humanitarian law do?
What are some of the human rights guaranteed by international law?
What is the concept of sustainable development?
What are the main organs of the United Nations?
Which cases are heard by the International Court of Justice?
How are treaties different from executive agreements under US law?
When does a treaty supersede federal laws?
A sovereign state is an entity with a permanent population, a defined territory, an effective government, and the capacity to conduct international relations. These criteria are often loosely applied. For example, boundary disputes and ongoing civil wars do not necessarily prevent an entity from becoming a state if it is formally independent from other states.
No, a state technically does not need to get recognition from other states. Under the prevailing declaratory theory of recognition, a state exists if it meets the necessary criteria that define states. Recognition is simply an acknowledgment of an existing situation. (The minority constitutive theory of recognition holds that recognition is necessary to the existence of a state.)
A state can use military force against another state only in self-defense against an armed attack. This right arises from Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which incorporates inherent rights from customary international law. Any acts of self-defense must be necessary and proportionate to the acts of aggression. Acts of anticipatory self-defense may be permitted when an armed attack is imminent and inevitable, although the UN Charter does not address this situation.
International humanitarian law restricts the ways in which wars can be conducted. It protects the safety of non-combatants, as well as former combatants like prisoners of war. It also bans the use of certain weapons or tactics that inflict unnecessary harm or suffering, cause severe or lasting harm to the environment, or cannot be used in a way that allows those using them to distinguish between combatant and non-combatant targets.
Human rights guaranteed by international law include civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Examples include freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to work in favorable conditions, the right to education, and protections against arbitrary arrest and detention. These rights are codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other United Nations instruments, known collectively as the International Bill of Human Rights.
Sustainable development is defined as meeting the present needs of a generation without preventing future generations from meeting their needs. It has been a guiding principle of international environmental law since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and it even has influenced economic treaties. However, sustainable development has not yet been achieved, despite some legal and political progress.
The main organs of the United Nations are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice, the Economic and Social Council, and the Trusteeship Council. The General Assembly is a representative policy-making organ in which member states vote on resolutions and other actions. The Security Council protects international peace and security, approves changes to the UN Charter, and recommends new UN member states. Led by the UN Secretary-General, the Secretariat carries out the mandates of the General Assembly and other UN organs. The International Court of Justice resolves disputes between states and issues advisory opinions to non-state organizations. The Economic and Social Council develops policy recommendations based on meetings and consultations. The Trusteeship Council has been inactive since the 1990s, when the last UN Trust Territory gained independence.
The International Court of Justice has contentious jurisdiction and advisory jurisdiction. Its contentious jurisdiction involves resolving disputes between states under international law. Each state involved in a dispute must consent to ICJ jurisdiction. While contentious jurisdiction leads to binding decisions, advisory jurisdiction involves issuing non-binding opinions to public international organizations. These opinions generally carry great weight and can resolve ambiguities in international law.
A treaty requires the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate, and it must be ratified by the President. An executive agreement can be negotiated by the President without the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate. In a congressional-executive agreement, the President gets the approval of a simple majority of both houses of Congress. In a sole executive agreement, the President acts without involving Congress. However, treaties and executive agreements are equally binding under international law.
A treaty supersedes prior inconsistent federal laws if Congress implements it through new federal laws or if it is self-executing. A treaty is self-executing if there is an intent to make it enforceable under US law without additional implementing legislation. Some provisions in a treaty may be self-executing even if other provisions are not. Specific provisions are more likely to be considered self-executing. A provision may be self-executing in the US even if it is not self-executing in other signatory nations.
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