5.3.6 International Law: Global

International law is controlled by the United Nations Security Council, some international courts, and the Geneva Conventions.

The United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 at the end of the Second World War.  Its Charter lists its aims:

“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…

to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights…

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.”

It has been unable to prevent war.  As explained in the next chapter (6.6.6), the UN makes decisions on international security by political negotiation and it then “depends on the political will of its Member States to have its decisions put into action”.  This absence of firm rules and penalties doesn’t comply with the definition of legal power described earlier (5.1.1).  Many countries have ‘taken the law into their own hands’ and used unauthorised military force (7.4.4).

There has been some progress in reaching other objectives.  The UN oversees a patchy framework of international law, as described in the following sub-sections:

●  The UN Security Council is its supreme authority (, with five Permanent Members (the P5) having the right of veto. It acts as both political authority and legal system, but disagreements between the P5 have prevented it from working properly.  Some of its decisions have been ignored with impunity.

●  There are several International Courts of Law to deal with different kinds of dispute ( They operate with the consent of those who have signed up to them.

●  The Geneva Conventions deal with the conduct of war ( They are intended to protect civilians and prisoners of war.  Signatories undertake to prosecute breaches through their own courts, but there are many examples of war crimes and the use of torture which have remained unpunished.

●  The weaknesses in its framework prevent it from acting as a conventional legal system ( There is insufficient legislation, and the Security Council has too much power.

●  The Security Council can permit the use of force (, but an emerging agreement on the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ people who are being oppressed by their governments has floundered.

As described at the end of this book (9.5), the entire system needs to be reformed.  It needs to become rules-based, and to have credible powers of enforcement, so that it can be more effective at maintaining international security.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/536c.htm.