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What is International Law?

International law is a blanket term that covers the legal systems for all areas of law that leave the United States and travel overseas. International business transactions and tourists alike need the services of international legal professionals.

In a global society, legal issues involving international disputes are common. You should learn what international law is and how it affects business relations and politics.

Definition of International Law

International law is the system of treaties and agreements between nations. Nations codify some international laws in written treaties. Nations enforce treaties within their borders. Some laws, called "customary" laws, are not written. An example of "customary" law is the concept of diplomatic immunity.

International law falls into two categories. "Private international law" deals with controversies between private entities with ties to more than one nation. Intellectual property laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), are private international business laws.

"Public international law" concerns the relationships between nations. Treaties and compacts are public international laws. Governments negotiate treaties affecting international trade, human rights, and environmental protection. Multinational organizations such as the United Nations enforce global treaties. It ensures compliance with laws that affect all nations and that small nations have a say in global policy.

International law relies on common law and the consent of the participating nations. Few international organizations can enforce binding treaties between nations. Some of these organizations include:

  • United Nations, including the International Court of Justice and the Security Council
  • The International Monetary Fund monitors economic development and fosters growth in member nations.
  • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. They are humanitarian and human rights agencies. They protect the rights of prisoners of war and displaced people worldwide.
  • World Trade Organization is the only agency that oversees international trade rules. The WTO acts as a bridge between governments and multinational corporations.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). Monitors and responds to health crises in six primary regions around the world. Reports on disease outbreaks and flags inadequate responses for humanitarian support.
  • International Criminal Court investigates and tries those charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. The ICC is a "court of last resort" for crimes that can't be tried in the defendant's home country.

These agencies mainly offer their member nations legal assistance, monitoring, and arbitration. They can appeal to the United Nations Security Council for military support when necessary.

Terms to Know

  • Ambassador: A government official who facilitates communication between two nations.
  • International Court of Justice: The judicial branch of the United Nations. It resolves disputes between nations and issues advisory opinions on international law matters.
  • Interpol: An international network of police organizations that works to solve international crime.
  • Security Council: A special committee within the United Nations that addresses threats to international security. It imposes sanctions and authorizes the use of force and peacekeeping missions.

Practice Area Notes

Most people never have to interact with international law. Those who do may be part of a large corporation's legal team. Or they're victims of international human rights abuses seeking asylum in safer countries.

The average person's contact with international law is likely to happen when they are the victim of crime in a foreign country. They need a lawyer with the language skills and knowledge to help them.

Other people who may need international legal services may include:

  • Non-profits trying to provide humanitarian aid to those in disaster-stricken areas
  • People purchasing real estate overseas
  • U.S. business lawyers representing clients making mergers of companies in other nations
  • Students seeking legal advice about a term or internship in Europe or Asia

International law touches everyone's lives in ways you might not expect. Even traveling to Mexico or Canada is international travel.

Related Practice Areas

  • Business and Commercial Law: International law affects manufacturing, safety standards, and trade regulations.
  • Environmental Law: International laws help nations regulate their impact on the global environment.
  • Civil Rights: The U.S. grants its citizens many rights and freedoms that other nations don't. Civil rights law is a critical part of international law.
  • Admiralty and Maritime Law: The nations share ocean access to ease trade. The admiralty law field offers rules for interacting with foreign vessels.

If you need an international lawyer, FindLaw can help.

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