The role and work of the International Law Commission

Origins of International Law movements:

The concept of developing international law by bringing forth already accepted rules or through the design of new rules has a long history in international affairs. Prominent intellectual of the last century Jeremy Bentham proposed a system that would allow “codification of the whole of international law, though in a utopian spirit” (Lee, 546). Since then, many attempts have been made to achieve a comprehensive code of international law, with the help of various governments across the world. The prime motivating factor for world institutions to make progress with the codification movement arises from the belief that by having a framework of written laws and regulations, international disputes and conflicts could be resolved without resorting to force. Moreover, the torchbearers of the movement believed that “by filling existing gaps in the law, as well as by giving precision to abstract general principles whose practical application is not settled” (Lee, 546).

This international law movement can be traced back to the early years of the nineteenth century – the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) being a good example. During those times though, the emphasis was on making provisions pertaining to water sharing agreements, abolition of slavery, etc. The culmination of these efforts was the historically significant Powers of the Treaty of Paris of 1814. Since those days, the international law movement had advanced to application in other areas. The following passage describes its evolution over the last two centuries:

“Since then, international legal rules have been developed at diplomatic conferences on many other subjects, such as the laws of war on both land and sea, the pacific settlement of international disputes, the unification of private international law, the protection of intellectual property, the regulation of postal services and telecommunications, the regulation of maritime and aerial navigation and various other social and economic questions of international concern.” (Lee, 546)

A key achievement by the commission:

Now, with the growing presence of United Nations agencies in many developmental and relief operations across the world, the nature and scope of the International Law Commission (which by the way comes under the purview of the United Nations) has changed very much. For example, the International Law Commission recently completed its work on water resources management issues. This has come at a time when political tension between geographical neighbors is on the increase due to a lack of sound water sharing agreements. This latest work of the commission helps clarify the law and hence helps in promoting and consolidating harmonious relations between states in their use of common water sources (McCaffrey, 307).

UNILC’s internal democratic structure:

Moreover, since the end of the cold war, the UN has had greater freedom in going about meeting its objectives. The internal structure of the UN has also changed since then to represent all states. For instance,

“At present the five powers with vetoes on the Security Council are interpreting that job more widely than ever before. The UN is ready to intervene on a growing number of issues, from nuclear proliferation to civil wars. The rule that what governments do to their own people is their own affair–witness the Kurds in Iraq–is no longer sacrosanct. The idea that what harms democracy and human rights also threatens peace is gaining ground. The UNILC is to be credited for this radical change in international justice” (Lee, 547)

Yet the world we live in today does not always provide suitable punishments for breaches in international law. It can “exhort, it can boycott and blockade (or ask governments to) and it can go to war (or bless an alliance of its members)”. But from being inert to adopting a forceful approach, there is a more practical middle path that requires exploration. The UNILC has found success in filling this gap and intends to take it further in the future.

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