International Law’s Painfully Ad Hoc Application


International law brings many benefits, most of which are unappreciated and unseen. However, the more volatile issues remain clearly problematic. The shortcomings, or inequality, of international law’s practiced application show strict limitations on its ability to live up to the foundational requirements of being a just law in itself. Yet we try and try again.

The underappreciated advantages of International Law

We continue trying to exercise and hold these principles because of the power of international law to maintain global stability when enacted properly. Human rights, the Geneva Convention, and political and social organizations dealing with humanitarian crises and conflict after world wars are just a few examples that come to mind when one thinks about international law. Humanitarian issues and conflict These headline international agreements may not be flawless, but the background and underappreciated successes have become the basic consistency that allows our international community to function effectively. We can text or call, send mail to, and fly back and forth to almost every corner of the world—things that would be entirely impossible without internationally recognized laws and regulations.

In short, international law, or at the very least global agreements, are critical to an ever-more borderless world running smoothly in terms of functionality. If no law established airspace, we would not be able to fly over half the world, and without international maritime laws, the world would be crippled with supply shortages. The examples are endless. Aside from the inflammatory and focused-on issues, international law is highly successful in allowing our lives to function across borders as they do within them, as well as supporting global industries.

Inequality and lack of credibility: International Law’s worst enemies

However, the most prominent and renowned examples of the implementation of these international principles tend to showcase their limitations. Think about the International Court of Justice, a court established by the United Nations to settle disputes among nations based on international law. Generally, the universal organ functions well. From 1946 to 2004, the court made judgments on 79 cases ranging from land and maritime borders to hostage taking; asylum, economic, and passage rights; territorial sovereignty, and more. It cannot be denied that through this international legal system, nations have actually managed to decide a judgment and a penalty in many disputes, expanding the scope of legal authority beyond national borders and resulting in a more comprehensive and all-encompassing legal system.

Yet, not everything is as bright as it sounds. Due to its broadness and the ambiguity of international law, many have criticized the efficiency of this organ, not only in reaching a fair ruling outcome between states but in effectively demanding nations comply with the imposed penalty. One of the foundational principles of any legal system, an idea expressly stated in Lord Bingham’s “The Rule of Law,” is equality before the law. But in our international system, this is hardly seen. On a national scale, to qualify as a liberal democracy, the law must apply equally to all. All must be liable to it and protected by it for it to be a valid law in both Bingham’s eyes and the widely accepted view of liberal societies. So, if the law applies equally to all nations, what happened in Afghanistan with the US? Where was the international outcry we have seen against Russia and their actions in Ukraine? With the clarity of hindsight, the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq was just as dubiously justified as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Where were the sanctions, punishments, and anger the international community threw at Russia this past year?

Three things are different here, and as a result, the reaction is different. The first two of which are as sad as they are obvious. Ukraine is a western, white nation, which unjustifiably but reliably draws a larger outcry of victimization and, secondly, is seated on NATO’s preciously guarded doorstep. As Aimé Césaire explained in his “Discourse on Colonialism,” the outcry against Nazism was due to Hitler’s actions being in and against white western nations, nothing more. This is undeniable, given that those who cried out against him were committing the same heinous acts throughout the non-white world. In the fifteenth century, the School of Salamanca argued vehemently about the legitimacy of Spanish colonialism. Now, five hundred years later in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there is no justification left to argue beyond racism, discrimination, and hypocrisy. The same hypocrisy that was used to condemn Nazism in the past while turning the other cheek to their own actions abroad is now being used to condemn one nation internationally while allowing another’s actions to go unchallenged.

The third and perhaps most important reason for the lack of equality before the law is the simple question of what can be done about the United States. The nations that would sanction and condemn them are also far too reliant on and allied with them to do so, and those who are not dependent on the U.S. do not carry sufficient weight behind their condemnation. The same logic applies to how Russia survived its sanctions so well, with China and India still largely on their side. Although international sanctions were effective, they were insufficient to serve as true punishment.

In short, international law is not being applied effectively and is thus not credible. By picking and choosing where the global community cares enough to regulate their international legislation, the sanctity of the law is eroded, straying from the foundational principles of what a true law even is. In addition, by showing a clear inability to regulate all before the law, the sanctity of international law has again decayed. The biggest limitation of international law is, as a result, its unequal application and inability to hold all parties accountable.

Featured cover image: Gettyimages

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