By Shivani Chimnani:
World history is marked by a colossal number of wars, battles, international conflicts, crises and feuds between countries. In the ancient times, two acrimonious countries invariably resorted to war, killings, and mass destruction as a means for resolving conflict; a time when the practice of slavery, torturous campaigns of genocide, predominance of autocratic regimes, ruthless invasions of each other’s territory, imperial colonisation, the race for arms and attainment of ultimate political power were considered habitual acts of the apparent ‘super powers’. The Balkan wars, the Great War, the Second World War were all outcomes of mere political disputes between egoistic nations which led to the unfortunate loss of millions of lives. The abysmal ‘animal instinct’ of man, the generality of cruel despotic regimes and the utter disregard for innocent human lives were flagrant in this era.
However, the result of these devastating wars and casualties was the dawn of a new civilisation, a sense of empathy for the massive losses on all sides. There was a paradigm shift in thinking amongst the world powers marking the inception of public international law. Nations came to realise the importance of regulating and preventing such atrocities and living in peace and the virtue of cooperation. The concept of sovereignty gained paramount importance giving birth to international organisations, transnational courts, and tribunals to ensure sovereignty and bring perpetrators of international war crimes to justice. The notion of human rights, which ensured each individual a basic right to live with dignity, came into light and was promoted extensively. The seeds of International Law, i.e., the law of nations governing the conduct and structure of sovereign states towards each other were thereby sown.
International Law, in its formalistic model, has primarily evolved over the 20th century owing to the aftermath of the two wars which gravely shocked the global conscience. The Great War led to the inauguration of an intergovernmental peace organisation, the League of Nations, the first of its kind, established in Geneva in 1920 to guarantee political independence and territorial integrity to small nations. However, the League failed miserably in achieving its objectives and preventing the rise of tyranny in Germany and Italy and was further unable to cease the advent of a ‘Second’ World War and, therefore, gradually perished.
After the trauma of the Second World War, which bruised the entirety of mankind, the dire need for peace was realised. It had to be achieved instantaneously. In 1945, marking the beginning of a new era, the League was succeeded by the United Nations Organisation determined to uphold democratic sovereignty and ensure international peace and security. The UN supported the formation of the International Court of Justice to adjudicate on all international crimes which supplemented massive developments in the field of Public International Law. Heinous crimes such as genocide, slavery, torture were declared to be peremptory norms from violation of which no state could derogate from.
In the subsequent years, after the establishment of the International Court of Justice, many international institutions and tribunals such as the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court, etc. were founded to ensure international social, economic, criminal and political justice. Civilisation had begun to evolve. There was absolute consensus among the international community with regard to the safeguarding human rights and promoting international cooperation at large.
The subject matter of Public International Law entails the framework of rules relating to the conduct of sovereign states. According to international law scholar, Professor F.I. Kozhevnikov, “international law can be defined as the aggregate of rules governing relations between states.” The international system is horizontal, having no hierarchical structure, where 193 states are all equal in legal theory. The field of International law is constantly developing. There is no rigid set of rules and regulations binding nation states. It’s a byproduct of its environment. It has developed with the prevailing notions of international relations. Consensus and acceptance of rules and norms by sovereign states are the key elements of this law. When countries are in discord, it is practical to have recourse to the rules of international law even though it may have conflicting interpretations.
The scope of International Law is wide ranging from regulation of outer space expeditions to governing undersea waterbeds, involving individual actors of States to international organisations, companies and nation states, covering the conduct of eloquent consuls to savage terrorists, entailing procedures of modern day diplomacy to defining rules of present day warfare, from determining immunities of heads of state to liabilities of aliens, from ascertaining the threshold of the use of force to validating the text of a peace treaty and so much more. The monumental increase in the number of international agreements, conventions and customs, the development of multitudes of international tribunals and organisations, state practice in upholding and defending human rights have established the essence of International Law as it is today.
Despite the fact that 21st century has been considerably peaceful and non-destructive in comparison to its predecessors, International Law remains to be of equal or rather higher significance today. The international community has encountered grave and imminent perils such as jingoistic terrorist organisations tormenting citizens, governmental mass surveillance programs contravening individual privacy, drone attacks killing innocents, cyber sabotage on countries’ vital infrastructure breaching its sovereignty, data security breaches undertaken by governments all accompanied by an endless list of basic rights’ violation. Revelations of Assange, Snowden and other prominent whistleblowers have brought to light large scale rights infringements by governments themselves. The perils have taken novel forms but they can be curtailed by this law itself.
Even today, after every revelation, attack, feud, battle, conflict and crisis, there ensues a parallel battle, a legal one. International Law continues to develop constantly to meet any new needs of the world. It evolves as we evolve. The importance of international law can never be undermined because of the immense impact it has on the world at large. Even today, given the critical issues faced by the global community, there exists a need to have such a law to draw the line between what is permitted and what is not. International law is indeed the result every war, revolution, mutiny, uprising, rebellion intended to bring about a change in the ways of the world hoped for. International law is the change.