What is the Function of International Law?

What is the Function of International Law?

International law has been created by states to regulate many different aspects of inter-state activity: the use of the sea and Antarctica, telecommunications, postal services, the transfer of money and the carriage of goods and persons. It covers nationality, extradition, human rights, environment, security and the use of armed forces. The fact that governments consider IL as one of the discriminating factors whether taking a particular course of action it is a consequence of the fact the IL is bound with diplomacy, politics and foreign relations and that the nature of IL is distinct from the nature of traditional law as well as its function.

Reliance, or compliance, on IL depends upon the legitimating significance of the international society and of the rule in object, its acceptance and embodiment in the nation’s system of values and structures but also upon foreseeable advantages, deprivation of interests and customary traditions that the possibly compliant nation and its governing structures need to pay attention.

Enforcement may be regarded as fundamental in defining as law any legal system, but its relevance on the binding quality of IL is subject to the diplomatic and politic process peculiar of the nature of IL. Whenever that process has been observed in national legal systems it has produced the same contrasting effect it produces in IL, thus positing that legitimacy and validity of the legal system should derive from acceptance of whose are subject to it rather than from compulsory forces.

In its wider interpretation, the customary right to self-defense exemplifies the previous considerations. The acceptance of the purposes of the UN Charter and its obligations has been subsequently reaffirmed and consolidated in the restrictive interpretation of Art 2(4) and Art 51 but the customary right has never been abolished allowing contrasting outcomes.

IL explains its functions and its aims as a communicative instrument for accommodating conflicting interests inducing convergence of opinions and behaviours through acceptance of its legitimacy and validity in order to justify policies and decisions to the eyes of the international community. IL’s nature and function render it vulnerable and powerful at the same time as the underling diplomatic and politic process requires its instrument to be. It is this process at the base of the international society and its inter-state relations that is sustaining IL in order to address the political issues with the required degree of flexibility.


  • Martin Dixon, ‘Textbook on International Law’ (4th edn, Blackstone 2004)
  • Onuma Yasuaki, ‘International Law in and with International Politics: Functions of International Law in International Society’ (2003)
  • The Caroline Case 29 Brit & For St Papers 1137
  • UN Charter (1945) Art 1
  • 12 GA Res 2131 (XX) (1965); GA Res 2625 (XXV) (1970); GA Res 3314 (XXIX) (1974); GA Res 42/22 18 November 1987
  • Nicaragua v Usa 1984 ICJ Rep 392 and the role of UN in the Serbian/Kosovan crisis of 1998/1999

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