What is international law?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 15 2002 5:27 PM

What Is International Law?

Many people, including Slate's Robert Wright, have suggested that a pre-emptive attack on Iraq would violate "international law." What is international law anyway?


International law encompasses several things, including treaties, which Article VI of the U.S. Constitution makes "the supreme law of the land"; customary law, which refers to rules that all states follow and expect to be upheld; and a web of organizations such as the United Nations, the World Court, the World Bank, the Organization of American States, the African Union, etc.

What specific agreement do doves think the United States would be violating by invading Iraq? Article 2, Section 4, of the U.N. Charter, which forbids "the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state." Article 51 of the charter reserves for each nation the right of self-defense against an armed attack, but doves don't think this justifies a U.S. invasion.

Say the U.S. invasion of Iraq does violate the U.N. Charter, but we decide to invade Iraq anyway. Then what happens? Probably nothing. There's no international police force going around arresting states that are in violation of international law. A state can be brought before the World Court, but only if it agrees to be or has signed a treaty referring certain disputes to the court. The court can impose damages but can't collect them, which would require action by the U.N. Security Council, of which the United States is a member.

So why do states bother to follow international law? For one thing, they want the benefits as well as the costs, and if they renege on their obligations under an agreement, their partners often will, too. International law clarifies standards and allows for diplomatic horse-trading. But most of all, international law bestows transparency and legitimacy, and states usually follow it because, to some extent, they know their reputation depends on it.

Explainer thanks Ruth Wedgwood and Harold Koh of Yale.

Kate Taylor is the arts reporter at the New York Sun and the editor of an anthology of essays about anorexia, Going Hungry, which will be published next spring.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.