Tuesday, March 18, 2008

WHT: Sourcing International Law

It is sometimes said that international law is not law because it doesn't behave in the same way as domestic law, lacks enforcement and is not derived from legislative or other usual law-making sources. This argument is ongoing but it has been accepted by most that international law does exist and is used every day. So, how can you find the sources of international law? It's not hard to do and is a key foundation to understanding international law well.


  1. Look to treaties first. Treaties are the main source of international law. Treaties can go by various names, such as international agreements, conventions, protocols etc. but they are in essence the same thing - a written international agreement concluded between two or more countries.
  2. Be careful to ensure that your country has signed and ratified the treaty in question before applying it to your domestic situation. Signature is only an indication of intent by a country to be bound to the treaty. Ratification is the point at which a country accepts its legal obligations under the treaty. Treaties only come into force when a specified number of countries have ratified it. Once in force, however, a treaty serves as a principal source of international law.
  3. Consider custom. Custom comes into play when a country follows a law or legal principle consistently and uniformly in its everyday conduct, so as to indicate "state practice" (conduct). When this occurs, it tells the rest of the international community that this country is acting as if the international law or principle binds it. While a very useful source of international law (treaties often build on the foundation stones of custom), it can be very hard to establish universal practice. The Law of the Sea is a good example of state practice that is established and some that is not considered established. In addition, be aware that there is one principle of customary international law that applies no matter what:
    • jus cogens - this refers to the rule that there are some laws that can never be violated. While there are few of these rules, the ones that do exist are very important ones, namely, the prohibitions on genocide, slavery and torture.

  4. Be aware of the concept of General Principles of Law. These are said to be legal principles that are common to the majority of the world's legal systems. Equity is considered to be one such principle. However, it is important to note that this source of international law is considered to be very much under debate and is frequently questioned. Be aware of it and its limitations.
  5. Read Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice. Here you will find what international lawyers call "subsidiary sources" of international law:[1]
    • Judicial decisions - although not a requirement to do so, international courts aim to follow the previous decisions of their own court and other international courts and tribunals. If they do follow precedent in this way, it may evidence growing acceptance of a principle or concept of international law.
    • Writings of publicists - merely influential in the case of the writer being "highly influential" in the relevant international field. Generally cited in international courts.

  6. Note that in the last example the "subsidiary sources" are not sources of international law in their own right but are influential in elucidating the content and interpretation of treaties and customary international law.
  7. Learn these sources well in conjunction with their limitations as sources. That way, you will be able to write a coherent and convincing defence of international law in an exam or article.


  • Countries may make reservations to treaties. This means that there are parts of a treaty to which they object or simply state they are unable to meet and that that part of the treaty does not apply to them. It's a little more complex than that, but this is the basic gist.


  • Be careful! Treaties only bind countries who have signed and ratified them. They do not usually apply to countries who are not a party to them.

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Sources and Citations

  1. Brownlie, Ian, (1998) Principles of Public International Law, 5th edition, p 19, ISBN 0-19-876299-2

Article provided by wikiHow, a collaborative writing project to build the world's largest, highest quality how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Find Sources of International Law. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license.

wikiHowTo: Write A Law Essay


Law essays can be tricky to begin with, as they often require a great deal of research on an ever-changing and unfamiliar topic. Here are some tips to help you create a good law essay.


  1. Begin by reading the question carefully. Underline any keywords you notice.
  2. Read through your main textbook on this particular topic. Note any resources they have used in their writing (you can often do this by looking at the footnotes) and make a note of these. You can take notes on what you find relevant to your essay as you go along or you can just store the information in your head for now - different things work for different people!
  3. Work through your list of additional resources, doing the same as you did for your original textbook. This will probably result in a very long list. Make life easier on yourself and opt to read the most recent sources on your list first, as these will have the most up-to-date information. In addition, the most recent articles will also have discussed, argued for and against and reached conclusions on the listed prior articles listed, so this will ease your reading burden! From the most recent arguments, you should be able to deduce which are the most important older articles to follow up. You may also find articles you did not catch earlier that are gems of knowledge.
  4. Start writing your essay. Use a plan that helps you tease apart the different elements of the question, to ensure that you cover everything. Bring in new information that you haven't covered in the course or that isn't in the main textbook if possible. Definitely develop your own original thoughts as well, backing these up with precedents and other authors' discussions. Professors like to read essays that step out of the run-of-the-mill and display innovative thinking and initiative.
  5. Be broad in your thinking. Don't necessarily limit yourself to law. Think of related subjects such as politics, economics, psychology etc., that may have extra insights into the subject-matter on which you're writing that will give you a special angle that other students may not have considered (or are too disorganised to obtain!).
  6. Shorten it! Law essays tend to be long - too long, in fact, as many students often overshoot the word limit! Try to be as concise as possible (use "plain English" and not "legalese") and only use as many words on an argument as it needs. Write it once and then go through it with the red pen. This is actually much easier on a printed copy than on the screen, so print first and edit with brevity in mind. Remember, a good lawyer will make their points succinctly and will not need repetition to hammer a good point.
  7. Proof read through the essay before you print off the final copy.
  8. Submit your essay - on time, within word length and with all appropriate supporting documentation attached. If your professor expects a declaration of originality/no plagiarism, include this as well. Sometimes this is a nice touch even if it is not required as it shows that you care enough to write your own work.


  • Whilst proof reading, double check your references. Make sure your citations for journal articles and cases are correct according to the way your university or college expects the citation. A great way to double check is to type your reference into a legal database and see what comes up.
  • For legal journals, make sure you check your library's website to see if they have copies of that journal. There's nothing worse than going into the library on your day off only discover there's nothing you want there!
  • Make thorough use of electronic journals. Easier to obtain, easy to download and less to carry! They also allow for greater breadth of research.
  • You can prioritise your reading list even more by opting to read author's you are familar with first.


  • Make sure you read the instructions carefully. You don't want to write a wonderful essay but then lose marks because you went over the word count or used the wrong formatting.
  • If you are really stuck on the word count, you can move some of your argument into your footnotes. But be warned: lecturers are quickly growing wise to this practice and you could find your mark dropping if you rely on this method too often. In fact, some law departments have grown so wise to this practice that they now demand footnotes are included in the word count! Double check the instructions to make sure your law department is not one of these crafty few.

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Article provided by wikiHow, a collaborative writing project to build the world's largest, highest quality how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Write a Law Essay. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license.