How Is International Law Enforced?

Contrary to what many may believe, there is not actually a military branch to the United Nations (there is something called the ‘UN Peacekeepers’ but they are only deployed by the Security Council and are mainly responsible for helping countries stabilize after conflict or after natural disaster. And they are not allowed to use force.)  So if there is not military or judicial enforcement unit for international law, how does the international community enforce international law? Through three concepts: ‘Reciprocity’, ‘Collective Action’, and ‘Shaming’.

Reciprocity‘ is the international community’s fancy word for ‘If you won’t, I won’t.’ And it is what it sounds – the basis of International Law relies on each country maintaining their promise to each other that they will not break whatever agreement is in place. A perfect example of this is the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC): at the time the BWC was created, the world was still in the midst of the Cold War. Unfortunately this meant that the international community had yet to agree on a method through which enforcement of international treaties could be verified. The result of this was many countries agreeing to fulfill their commitments to the BWC – as long as everyone else maintained their commitments as well. This is called agreeing to the treaty ‘with reservations’ (specifically: should a country be attacked with a Biological Weapon, they would reciprocate towards the offending party with a Biological Weapon of their own.)  And this has prevented nations from using Biological Weapons – both fear of retaliation and the uncertainty of what would be used during a retaliatory attack deter nations from being the first to strike.

For a more recent example – when the Trump Regime banned Iranian citizens from entering the US, Iran reciprocated by banning US citizens from entering Iran.


‘Collective Action’ is also what it sounds like: several nations ban together against an offending state to punish the offending state for their breach of international law. A good example of this would be the Gulf War – when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the UN Security Council passed a Resolution (which is binding international law – if you would like to know why, let me know!) calling for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. When they did not, the United States and its NATO allies, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations joined together in a collation to retaliate against Iraq.

While Collective Action is one of the fundamental methods of maintaining international law, it does pose a significant issue (aptly named the ‘Collective Action Problem‘). Summary: While nations may agree to come to each other’s aid, when the time does come some nations may decide to break the original agreement of mutual protection.


Like the others, ‘Shaming’ is again what it sounds like. By nature, nations do not like having negative press related to their actions and will respond in order to prevent further bad press. Example: the US’s investigation into torture practices after the April 2004 CBS News report showing leaked photos and reports from Abu Ghraib prison proving torture and prisoner abuse. This method is most commonly used for violations of international law which are widely regarded as deplorable by both governments and civilians (i.e. human rights abuses, use of chemical weapons, the use of any weapons of mass destruction in general, etc.) This method is not commonly used by fellow governments, though, but rather by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch [if you would like to learn more about this incredible organization, I will happily explain more – just let me know!] In the case of the Abu Ghraib prison photos, it was in fact a news organization which spread the negative press that changed the US policy on torture (side note – torture has been outlawed since 1948 via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the 1984 Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. All of these are ratified by the United States, meaning the US must abide by them.)


Too long, didn’t want to read? Here is a summary – application of international law relies on three concepts (Reciprocity, Collective Action, and Shaming) in order to hold nations responsible for their commitments made in international law. Each of these are basically pressure tactics by other nations.

BUT WAIT! Is there a court which settles disputes of international law when they do happen? Yes, it is called the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and it is a principal body of the United Nations. There is also the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which was created 1899, nearly 50 years before the ICJ. (I’ll write a post about the difference between them as well.) But even the decisions by these courts have no real enforcement techniques – they each rely on the 3 techniques discussed above.

Interesting right?

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