International law is the term given to the group of substantive laws, rules, and procedures which address the rights and duties existing between:
- The government of one sovereign nation and the government of another nation;
- A citizen of one nation and a government of another nation; or
- A citizen of one nation and a citizen of another nation.
Controversies between members in the first two categories listed above are generally described as cases of public international law. Controversies between members of the third category are considered to be cases of private international law. International law regulates only dealings between nations, and it does not restrict any nation from making laws governing what occurs entirely within its own territory.
As a practical matter, a resident of the United States will rarely come into contact with international law, but the most likely area of contact is through certain commercial activities. In recent years, citizens have been concerned most often with the application of international law to the treatment of their family members who have gone abroad with the military, and international law issues of human rights have been brought to the forefront of public attention via American military intervention in certain nations.
Both public and private international law controversies call upon a complex set of applicable laws, including legislation from the involved nations, treaties (agreements between two or more nations), multi-lateral agreements, rulings from international commissions (established to deal with widely diverse subjects with international ramifications, from whaling to copyrights), charters from multi-national organizations like the United Nations (UN), findings from the International Court of Justice, and traditional customs of international dealing. Private agreements may be involved in a controversy, as well, since individuals and entities are free to make international contracts that do not otherwise conflict with international law.
Treaties and customs are generally considered to be the most significant sources of international law. A treaty is an agreement signed and properly ratified between two or more sovereign nations. A treaty may deal with any subject that affects two or more nations, such as banking, business, trade, human rights, or treatment of military personnel abroad, among others.
Customary law is composed of precepts that have developed over centuries concerning the ways that nations relate to one another, and it carries the same level of authority as international law created in other ways.
The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) was itself a treaty, signed in 1969 and placed into effect in 1980, which attempted to restate the international customary law of treaties. The convention:
- Defines what a treaty is;
- Details the capacity of each nation to enter into treaties;
- Outlines the procedure for creation of treaties; and
- Provides for procedures and remedies to assist in enforcing those treaties that are between two nations (but not those between a nation and an international group, for example).
The VCLT was written and offered by the International Law Commission, an organ of the United Nations. The United Nations (UN) is a well-known international organization that was formed by Allied countries after World War II ended, for the purpose of promoting international peace and for facilitating a variety of international goals, including international economic development, human rights, international security, and ultimately world peace. It is the main organization involved in creating and administering international laws, although there are many others. The UN has five main organs, including its own General Assembly, a Security Council (which handles threats to world peace), an Economic and Social Council (which works for international socio-economic development), the Secretariat, and an International Court of Justice. Many other internal UN bodies have been developed to deal with more specific goals.
The UN was formed by the drafting of the Charter of the United Nations, which was ratified on October 24, 1945, and signed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council:
- The United States
- The United Kingdom,
- The former Soviet Union.
The UN currently has a membership of 192 nations, and its work is financed through the voluntary contributions of its members. Each member nation has a single vote to cast on issues that come before the General Assembly, and a vote there can produce only a recommendation that does not bind on member nations. Only the Security Council has the power to make decisions that are binding on members.