Major Principles of International Law

Following World War II and the establishment of the United Nations, international law began to parallel the elements of the UN Charter.  First signed in 1945 in San Francisco, the UN Charter provided a framework for post-war international relations and dispute resolution.


One of the major elements influencing the post-war international law principles was the independence of the West’s former colonial territories.  With influence from the USSR, these newly independent states demanded complete sovereignty and an equal voice at the table in the UN General Assembly.  While the UN Security Council continued to maintain the 5 permanent members (US, USSR, France, Britain and China) and their veto power as an exclusive group, there was no similar arrangement in the General Assembly.  One of the key elements influencing the scope, terms and approach of treaties and international relations during the Cold War was the vast number of emerging nations that were able to outvote and have, as a block, significant influence in the United Nations.

This equality and sovereignty extended to the affairs of state, the rights of jurisdiction over its citizens and those within its territory, and the preservation of the integrity of the borders.  The smallest nation has the same sovereign rights as a superpower under most elements of international law.


A second principle arising from the UN Charter was the principle that the default approach for international relations was to not intervene in the internal or external affairs of another nation.  This principle includes the use of coercion or force against elements of foreign governments, executives, legislatures or the judiciary, in addition to the direct use of force. Conversely, this also extends to assisting or harboring factions or groups that seek to influence elements of foreign governments, or the involvement in true civil wars. There is an exception for “national liberation” movements – defined as those fighting to restore the independence of a formerly independent state, or of a racially oppressed group (as opposed to an ethnic group – which does not share in these protections under international law).

Issues arising under this principle include the whether the use of propaganda, economic sanctions, “quarantines” and other non-military acts qualify as “intervention” under international law.  Each would be evaluated on a case by case basis, and little has been done to enforce or define these as “intervention” in international tribunals.


The use of force, except in self defense, is prohibited under international law.  This includes peremptory strikes against a nation in anticipation of an attack, and the use of insurgents or other agents to act on behalf of one state against another.  In addition to the direct use of force, the mere threat of a use of force, or the application of economic actions such that the peace is threatened also fall under this prohibition.

Interestingly, the supplying of aid to insurgents is not considered a use of force sufficient to trigger the self-defense defense to a law violation.  Neither is the use of force against insurgents who are conducting “national liberation” movements, as defined above.  This definition and principle is a direct result of the disproportionate number of emerging nations in the UN General Assembly during the Cold War, and the influence of the USSR in supporting these “liberation” movements.


International law dictates that in any dispute, the parties must endeavor to resolve their dispute in a non-threatening manner, and the use of force is prohibited.  The failure of a state to enter or engage in good faith negotiations to resolve any conflict is a de facto violation of this principle of international law.


The end of the colonial period brought to light the lack of self-determination of the subjugated colonies.  One of the fundamental principles of the post-war period was the right of people to determine their own government and path forward, and the right of all peoples to basic human rights, such as the right to not be subjected to torture or capricious arrest. These rights were held by the people against the State, as opposed to between states, like most international laws.  Provided for by the UN Conference on Human Rights in 1966 and expanded since then, this is a fundamental tenet of the UN, and one that results in UN intervention globally in conflicts.

Along with the human rights element is the right to self determination.  This is predominantly viewed in terms of race as opposed to ethnicity, but also applies to historically significant divisions.  While international law favors the integrity of borders, and does not generally support secession as falling under this principle, when applied to colonial subjugation, military occupation, or racial minorities, the principle allows for self-determination outside the existing national structure.

It was on these principles that the UN was chartered, and the evolution of international law developed in the post-war era.  Most elements we see today can be traced back to one of these principles, if not economics.