International Law and International Cooperation

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International law is the law we have established between peoples, that is, between nations; sovereign states. It is the international treaties which are not only entered into between individual states, but also have the aim of including all nations to the extent that they choose to ratify the treaties.

An interesting thing about international law and cooperation is that the ideas behind them originated in the Enlightenment, but they only came into being along with the democratisation of societies.

The first international regulations

Even in ancient times, many states respected the principle of international law that the envoys of foreign powers were inviolable. When Hugo Grotius wrote De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace) in 1625 and made it clear that agreements must be respected, he was laying the groundwork for all subsequent international law.

With the signing of the series of treaties constituting the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the warring parties for the first time entered into an agreement whereby prisoners of war were to be released unconditionally and allowed to return home. It had previously not been uncommon just to kill them.

Military alliances and agreements between two or more states existed of course, but before the emergence of the democratic states, there were no binding international conventions or formal institutions where sovereign nations could meet and negotiate with each other.

International conventions

The first distinctly international convention was the Geneva Convention, adopted in 1864, the same year as the Red Cross was founded. The Convention set out a number of rules of warfare, including ones where warring parties undertook to care for sick and wounded soldiers regardless of nationality, as well as respecting and not attacking hospitals, ambulances and other forms of transport for the wounded.

During the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889, politicians from several countries founded the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The object of the organisation was to work to ensure that arbitration should replace war, and throughout the 1890's, popular support grew for such international cooperation.

Peace conferences

This led to the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, convening the first international peace conference in The Hague in 1899. At this conference, the Geneva Convention was expanded with more rules of warfare, including the prohibition of chemical warfare and the use of dum-dum bullets (bullets which expand on impact and cause extremely damaging wounds). The conference also led to The Hague Tribunal being established; a permanent court of arbitration where nation-states could settle disputes peacefully. However, this never really worked in practice. 1899 was also the year when the first Nobel Prizes were awarded.

In 1907, another peace conference was held in The Hague, this time at the behest of the U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt. The conference resulted in a further expansion of the Geneva Convention. In particular, the rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war were tightened up and it was established that war cannot be initiated without a formal declaration of war. In addition, a range of rules for naval warfare and the status of neutral nations were formulated.

The League of Nations

All these good intentions were, however, difficult to live up to and, when the First World War ended in 1918, 70 million men worldwide had been under arms and 10-12 million people had been killed. The brutality of the war was such a big shock to everybody that it was agreed that the like should never happen again! During the preparation of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson therefore suggested an organisation which could resolve international conflicts by peaceful means without the use of military sanctions.

This became the League of Nations which was set up in 1920 by the winners of the war. With the founding of the League, it was decided that the international tribunal in The Hague would be taken over and made into the Permanent Court of International Justice that would ensure peaceful solutions to international conflicts. The League of Nations assumed control over the court in 1922.

In 1920, the League had 27 member states and, during the 20s and 30s, nearly all the states in the world joined. Four states though remained outside the League, namely Mongolia, Tibet and Saudi Arabia, along with the USA, despite the fact that it was the USA's own idea. Wilson, who was a Democrat, had not taken care to have his own support base in order, and when the Senate voted on membership, the Republicans voted against it. Instead, the USA chose an isolationist stance in international politics.

In 1925, this international cooperation led to the Third Geneva Convention, which came into force in 1929. It gave even better security to prisoners of war and forbade any form of torture, as well as chemical and biological warfare.

Cooperation fails

However, international cooperation didn't last. In the 1930s, a number of member countries withdrew from the League. It is significant that they were all states where democracy had failed or had never been introduced: Hitler's Germany and Hirohito's Japan withdrew in 1933 and, in 1937, Mussolini's Italy did so too.

In addition, a number of Central American states withdrew from the League during the same period and in 1939, the Soviet Union was excluded. Thereafter, the League of Nations became incapable of taking any decisions and World War II broke out.

The United Nations

Even before Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Britain and the USA began planning for the peace once the war was over. On 14 August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, whereby the two great powers guaranteed, among other things, that after the war, national borders should be drawn according the wishes of the nations; that every people had the right to choose their form of government; and that free trade should ensure that all states could gain access to the raw materials they needed.

In 1942-43, the Allies also began to prepare for the international cooperation which would replace the League of Nations when the war was over.

The statutes of the United Nations (UN) were drawn up at a conference in San Francisco in April-June 1945 and came into force on 24 October 1945. This date has been United Nations Day ever since. The aim of the UN was for it to become worldwide and to ensure international peace and security. The preamble to the United Nations Charter goes like this:


• to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

• to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and

• to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and

• to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


• to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and

• to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and

• to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and

• to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,


Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.

51 nations were co-founders of the UN in 1945, among them the USA, the USSR, Britain, France, Greece, Turkey, Denmark, Norway, Iran and Iraq. The majority of the world's nations have since joined - Sweden and Iceland in 1946, Finland, Spain and Italy in 1955, Japan in 1956 and East and West Germany in 1973, just to name a few. There are currently 193 member states. Among these are Pakistan, Israel, Croatia, the Czech Republic and other states that were actually created with help from the UN and which became members immediately upon their creation.

In connection with the establishment of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice was established in The Hague. It is the UN's principal judicial organ and only states, not individuals, can bring cases before the court. When a country accepts the court's jurisdiction, it also pledges to follow the court's rulings. In addition, other agencies within the UN can ask for advisory opinions from the court.

War crimes tribunals

In 1945, the UN also set up the war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, and in 1946, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was established to prosecute Japanese war criminals. It was the first time in human history that those responsible for war atrocities were held personally accountable.

The legal basis for the two courts was not unproblematic because it wasn’t worked out until after the war, so the UN began formalising the principles for these kinds of cases. They were made public by the International Law Commission (ILC) in 1950 under the name of the Nuremberg Principles.

That same year, the ILC drafted a proposal to establish a permanent international tribunal which could deal with war crimes in the future, but because of the Cold War, the proposal was never adopted by the UN General Assembly. It was not until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that it was possible to establish other war crimes tribunals.

UN Human Rights

In 1948, 48 of the UN's then 56 member states adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has 30 articles and the first 10 are as follows:

1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Many later conventions on human rights are based on the UN's, including the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe was set up in 1949 by 10 countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Britain, Italy, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The aim was political and economic cooperation and the countries also sought to create a common European framework of human rights and to establish a court that could enforce these rights. This led to the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950, and the European Court of Human Rights, established in Luxembourg the same year. Today the Council of Europe has 46 member states, all of which have acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights and are bound by the decisions of the court.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization - better known as NATO - also came into being in 1949. The founding member countries were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Britain, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the USA. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982. The organisation is a defensive alliance, based on the "musketeer's principle" of all for one and one for all: if one of the member countries is attacked, it is considered an attack on them all. NATO came into being on American initiative and had the direct aim of strengthening Europe in relation to the Soviet bloc.

The preamble of the NATO-Pact begins like this: The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments. They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area. They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.

Today, NATO has 28 members, including a large number of the former Warsaw Pact countries.

The European Union

On 9 May 1950, the French foreign minister Robert Schuman presented the declaration that was to become the beginning of the current European Union (EU). For that reason, 9 May is now Europe Day. In the declaration, he said that "peace in Europe can only be maintained by creative efforts commensurate with the dangers that threaten peace." For this reason, he wanted a united Europe which could maintain peaceful relations and work for civilisation. Specifically, he suggested that the combined French and German production of coal and steel - which had been used to kill both Germans and French during the war - came under a common authority. The idea was that with a common authority over the resources which every war depends on, it would be impossible to go to war against each other.

This joint authority should be open to all interested European states and create a common basis for economic development. It would also be the first step towards a European federation. The statement has since been named the Schuman Declaration and it led to the Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951.

In 1957, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). It was the start of the European Common Market. In 1986, the Single European Act was adopted and in 1992, the Treaty on European Union, also known as the Maastricht Treaty, was approved.

The EU does not have the separation of powers into a legislative, an executive and a judicial power that Montesquieu wrote about. This is probably due to two things in the main: firstly, that the EU is not a federation with shared powers in all areas, but an association of sovereign states; and secondly, that this association has not arisen on the basis of a popular desire for a common European democracy, but as a trading association.

The structure of the EU

The three main institutions of the EU are the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament. The European Commission can initiate new legislation, while the Council of Ministers, which is composed of ministers from each member state, can approve the proposals. The Parliament, where all countries are represented in proportion to population, has in certain areas the right to make decisions together with the Council of Ministers. In some contexts, the Parliament has a right of veto and also controls the budget.

Since the beginning, all the national languages have been official EU languages. There is a steady increase in common legislation; the majority has a common currency; and there is free movement within the whole community. There are a lot of things in the EU which don't work, but it is unparalleled that so many nations and former arch-enemies have united in this way. There is also no doubt that the EU brings a lot of benefits, and on other continents people have therefore begun to copy this form of cooperation between nation states.

The question is whether it is possible to find a form whereby the European Community and other similar associations can become fully communal and fully democratic.

A permanent, international war crimes tribunal

In 1990, in the wake of the Balkan war, a war crimes tribunal was established, just like after World War II and again after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. These tribunals led to an international desire to create a permanent war crimes tribunal, so it would not be necessary to establish ad hoc tribunals after every war. The UN General Assembly therefore set the process going and, on 17 July 1998, a conference in Rome adopted a statute for the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

When 60 countries had ratified it, the statute received the binding status of a treaty. This took place during a ceremony at the UN headquarters in New York on 11 April 2002. Almost all the states that had been involved in the Rome Statute ratified the Treaty, except for the USA, Israel, China, Cuba, Iran, Libya and North Korea. The USA and Israel admittedly ratified the treaty at the last moment, but then jumped ship again.

Other international institutions

Since democratic development really took off in the 19th century, there have been an increasing number of international organisations and treaties. Those mentioned above are just some of the most important. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with 56 member states in Europe, Central Asia and North America, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), with 157 member states across the globe, are just two of the many forums for international cooperation.

A connected world

Today, all the nations of the world are woven together in many different directions by communities and conventions. Some organisations function better than others and some have achieved better results than others. There are also nations that are better at complying with the agreements reached than others and there are nations that simply refuse to participate in the international community. It is typically the non-democratic regimes that do not want to take part or who do not keep agreements. But overall in the past 150 years, the world has changed fundamentally.

The last 150 years of democratic development have improved and secured our individual and collective freedoms and rights. We have achieved greater protection under the law, more opportunities and greater prosperity. Where there have been setbacks, it has repeatedly been the case that human rights have been violated and that the individual has been deprived of his/her rights and dignity.

Respect for human beings

The UN's Human Rights are not divine and they are not European or Christian. They are man-made and they are universal - as long as we carry on insisting that they shall be.

That they are man-made means that they can always be renegotiated and improved - or undermined and impaired. It is entirely up to us and each other to maintain and insist on human rights, otherwise they will disappear. The same risk applies to respect for each and every person, respect for the individual.

That human rights are universal means that no single culture - be it religious or non-religious - can take out patents on them. They belong to everyone. That is precisely the point. At any given time, there can be cultures where individuals enjoy greater respect than in other cultures, but any claim that any single culture is more suitable for human rights than any other is contrary to the inner substance of human rights. The point of human rights is precisely that they apply to all people, regardless of culture, and that all people basically have the same requirements and shall enjoy the same respect.

Historically, it is true that it was in European culture that human rights were formulated, but that is not the same as saying that Europeans are especially suitable for individual freedom and democracy. It was also in European culture that some of the most oppressive and totalitarian regimes emerged, and respect for the individual repeatedly disappeared.


International cooperation has succeeded in bringing peace agreements and international conventions that protect us from atrocities, both as individuals, as minority groups and as nations. If atrocities occur, there are international tribunals, which in several cases have been set up to punish the perpetrators.

This international cooperation is to democracy's credit - and it also helps to support and establish the current and emerging democracies around the globe.

It happens - unfortunately in too many cases - that the fine agreements and ideals fail in practice. But there is one thing worth noting: we live in a time when ideals exist! And when it is not well-regarded to offend against them. That is new and unique to our time, and it is only democracy that can ensure that the ideals continue to exist and are complied with.

Next chapter: Civil Rights, Apartheid and Democratic Hypocrisy