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International Law Major Assessment Essay

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Updated: May 11th, 2020


In 2012, violence broke out in Libya and later spread across several Arab countries over what protestors termed as the American disregard of Muslim religious saints through a film that showed disloyalty to Prophet Mohammad. In Libya, this violence prompted the death of the US ambassador to Libya and three of his assistants.

The unanswered question in this scenario is whether the action of the protestors amounted to breach of international law as it applies to freedom of religion and human rights.

Global media has been reporting on the progress of eminent military interventions in Syria to punish the government of Syria for the allegedly using chemical weapons against its citizens. Such an intervention requires calls into action the international law as it applies to use of force in conflict resolutions coupled with the rights of protection of sovereignty of nations.

International law will play a big part in the resolutions on whether to attack Syria or not by the UN Security Council. The main aim of this paper is to discuss the Libyan case and the Syrian case in the context of international law. Through investigation of Syrian and the Libyan cases, the paper scrutinises the applicability of international law in the context of protection of human rights.

Background to international law

International law is a body of rules and principles that various nations commonly embrace and acknowledge to tie their interactions. Smith (2011) notes that international law underscores the structure with which states and nations collectively accept to abide in their conduct and dealings.

International law essentially entails pacts, customs, and all the legal agreements amongst various nations. Essentially, international laws are applicable to countries, rather than individual civilians (Schrock-Jacobson 2012). To some extent, national legal instruments are applicable as international law, especially when agreements entrust their territorial power to supranational hearings.

With regard to Haugen and Boutros (2010), international law is not mandatory except when sovereign countries deliberately decide to adhere on their own consent. Despite the view that subscription to international law pacts is consent-based, the application of several international regulations affects even non-member states, which steadily follow definite practices, though not as a legal mandate.

Rules that conflict with the international community as absolute law are subject to modification through peremptory standards of the international law (Haugen & Boutros 2010). Indeed, international law embraces the diverse and distinct legal customs and interactions from which its basic principles are founded.

International law is drawn from sources such as customs and conventions, or pacts. Customs are defined as common and steadily followed practices by given state communities, from which customary international law derives its discourses (Chen 2011). At the premise of seeking common standards among the international community, agreements and conventions have demonstrated tremendous significances subject to states’ legal responsibilities towards their demeanour, nationally and internationally.

International organisations such as International Labour Organisation make and implemented International laws and they are, for example, the League of Nations, which was later replaced by UN, established through international pacts (Hongju & Doyle 2013).

Indeed, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were founded on agreements under the United Nations with the purpose of maintaining international peace and security. Many other agreements and conventions have arisen to address issues like human rights, wars, and conflicts.

This aspect forms the foundation of international relations and international law provisions on absolute sovereignty of states. This observation suggests that international relations guidelines act as a source of international law in that they are developed by organisations through international agreements amongst various nations to foster international peace through regulation of circumstance at which a nation may invade another nation by force.

International law is subdivided into three chief distinct facets, viz. “public international law, private international law, and supranational law” (Spiro & Berkeley 2013, p.309). Public international law defines relationship amongst different actors in the international platform, who subscribe to specific international pacts. The obligation to foster the process of development of international law falls with the UN general assembly as provided for in the UN charter article 13 (Spiro & Berkeley 2013).

Private international law regulates relationships amongst different individuals in the international arena. It does not concern itself with relationships between states. In fact, no emphasis is placed on private international law although due to globalisation, it is increasingly becoming important in matters of resolution of conflicts of laws with regard to jurisdictions. This paper explores public international law.

Application of international law in enhancement of international relations

The Syrian case

The looming United States’ interventions in Syria to foster compliance to international law norm of prohibition of utilisation of chemical weapons is attracting differing reaction from both the international community and the organisations charged with implementation and ensuring compliance to international law across the globe.

Although the EU and the US consider the intervention as necessary in an effort to punish the Syrian government for crimes against humanity (Jianping & Zhixiang 2005), a strike on Syria may also amount to violation of a fundamental international law of the sovereign rights of a given nation to remain free from foreign attacks (Melandri 2009; Graham & Wiessner 2011 ).

This assertion holds especially in the case where the UN Security Council does not provide authorisation of use of force on Syria. This aspect implies that before the use of force on any state, analysis of validity of such an intervention in the context of international law is important. According to Chertoff (2009), the use of force against another nation is unlawful under the provisions of the international law and it represents an effort to pursue justice through vigilantes.

However, little doubt exists on the use of chemical weapons against citizens over the past two years in Syria. Indeed, if the UN Security Council finds evidence that Syria used the chemical weapons, international law provisions on the universal declaration of human rights will have been violated. This element calls for the international community to intervene and punish the President Assad’s regime for such crimes against humanity

Although from the above argument it sounds imperative for the international community, including the US, to intervene in restoration and enhancing compliance to international order in matters of respect for universal human rights, there are limitations to which strikes may become justified under provisions of the international law.

For instance, the international criminal court, whose mandate entails punishing crimes against humanity, is guided by the Rome statutes, which only hold individuals liable to crimes committed by regimes other than the entire nation (Melandri 2009). This aspect implies that specific persons serving in the President Assad’s regime should be held liable for use of chemical weapons against the Syrians if the UN Security Council finds evidence for use of such weapons.

Analysis of the legality of attacks on Syria by foreign nations in an effort to force compliance to international order requires analysis of the various pacts establishing the international legal order and guiding international relations. The UN established the international legal provisions on circumstances under which force against sovereign nations is valid and compliant with the international relations soon after the end of the Second World War (Kyl, Feith & Fonte 2013).

The UN charter under article 2 subsection 4 prohibits any force against a sovereign nation (Guglielmo 2013). However, article 51 of the charter cites circumstances under which use of force organist a nation becomes justified. In particular, force against a sovereign nation is justified under international order only under the circumstance of collective self-defence or even individual defence for a given nation (Guglielmo 2013).

Following the 9/11 attacks, these provisions of article 51 of the UN charter were invoked to justify attacks against Afghanistan in an effort to topple the Taliban regime, which provided fertile breeding culture for terrorism. Alternatively, the US attacked Afghanistan as an act of self-defence from foreign acts that impede the sovereign rights of a given nation coupled with threatening the life of citizens.

Although the NATO forces took part in the Afghanistan operations, the nations from which the forces are derived from were not directly affected by terrorism attacks of 9/11 in the United States. These nations’ presence in Afghanistan is justified under articles 39 to 42 of UN charter.

Through the articles, the UN Security Council gives authority for nations to engage in forceful acts against sovereign nations in a bid to enhance, maintain, or even restore collective security (Cali 2010). Under the international law, in the provisions of article 51 of the UN charter, a nation deploys force against other nation as an act of self-defence if it “suffered an armed attack or under some interpretations, be a target of an imminent armed attack launched by the target state” (Graham & Wiessner 2011, p.411).

Arguably, in the context of consideration of the necessity for launching attacks on Syria, from the paradigms of provisions of international law, these conditions should be satisfied so that an attack on the nation does not amount to breach of international law as it applies to protection of rights of sovereign nations and international relations. Although in the recent past Syria has had some incidents of attacks on Turkey, the UN Security Council is yet to qualify the attacks as the threshold of armed attacks on a sovereign nation.

One of the incredible sources of international law is agreements made amongst different nations to foster international security through the provision of laws that establish preconditions that nations need to comply with before launching attacks on other nations. For instance, powerful nations forming the UN Security Council vote in favour or in opposition to attacks of nations considered having violated international law by attacking other nations.

When the UN Security Council grants permission to launch attacks, it also provides limitations to the extent of use of force. Based on the discussion of circumstances under which international law may be breached to provide justifications for attacking other nations as provided in the UN Charter Articles 51, and 39 to 42, breach of limitation of the extent of use force also amounts to breach of international law (Kyl, Feith & Fonte 2013).

When attacks are launched on a given nation and limitation for use of force is violated, unprecedented suffering on civilians may occur. In such circumstances, as opposed to self-defence, the attacking nation ends up violating universal human rights through bringing unnecessary suffering to the civilians, as was the case in Iraq and Libya and now Afghanistan.

Considering the fear of violation of limited authority on the use of force, China and Russia oppose the use of force in Syria. The main concerns for these two nations are anchored on the need to protect human rights such as rights of life as codified in the international law. Craig (2013) argues, “US and NATO abused such authority in Libya” (Para.7).

The UN Security Council authorised NATO and the US to use force only to the extent that the force would enhance protection of civilians and ensure ‘no fly zones’. Nevertheless, NATO violated the limited authority to use force directive and repeatedly attacked the control and the command structure of Libya and subsequently aided rebels topple President Gaddafi’s regime.

From the above discussions, the international law legal foundation for justifying launching attacks on Syria seems exhausted. Although the UN Security Council may not find evidence that Syria has violated international law by attacking Turkey, hence prompting counter attacks in self-defence, the international law discourses of R2P (responsibility to protect) may be called into action when evidence is found on the use of chemical weapon against the Syrian citizens by their own government.

Humanitarian intervention and R2P may form in future provisions for making provisions for justifying interventions without necessary seeking the UN Security Council authority (Craig 2013). This aspect can provide acceptable justification of foreign military intervention against a nation believed to have committed atrocities against its own people in violation of a mandate to protect life and other universal human rights (Graham & Wiessner 2011).

The doctrine of R2P is crucial in the application of international law. It provides that where a “state fails in its responsibility to protect its own people it loses some of its sovereign rights against external interference in its affairs and the international community takes on some responsibility to protect the citizens of such a state from its own government” (Guglielmo 2013, p.375).

In such a situation, breach of international law by breaching the overall sovereign rights of Syria for freedom against foreign military attacks is valid, but only to the extent that force is the last resort and only if it will help in protection of fundamental human rights for the victim population.

The extent of force also should be in the magnitudes that are proportional to the imminent threats to the Syrian citizens posed by its government. This aspect implies that the likely harm from forceful intervention should be outweighed by the accruing benefits. However, it is important to note that the humanitarian intervention provisions have not yet been established as an international law.

Debate rages on whether it will require authorisation by the UN Security Council like in the situation of Libya. Where such authorisation is required, it ceases from being an exception to the UN Security Council regulations in matters of use of force against sovereign nations to a third prohibition in addition to prohibitions spelt out in the articles 51 and 39 to 42 of the UN Charter.

The Libyan case

International law helps in shaping justice discourses in matters involving relationships amongst nations. One of the fundamental aspects of public international law relates to protection and preservation of human rights as propagated by international bodies and global organisations such as the UN through universal declaration of human rights and pacts that make provisions for use of force against other nations coupled with erosion of sovereign rights of other nations (Provost 2002; Slomanson 2011).

International law also protects people within nations against acts that may erode their freedoms and fundamental rights propagated by their governments (Schabas 2006). According to Doebbler (2006), under the provisions of international law, freedom of religion encompasses a fundamental human right that should not be deprived of any individual under any circumstances unless resulting to threatening of the human life of other people.

Sam Bacile, a developer of real estate, who resided in California produced trailer, a film depicting Prophet Mohammad in what Hellyler (2012) terms as “a philanderer” (Para.5). Very little was known about the movie until the minute when the thriller was posted on YouTube having also been shown on an Egyptian TV. In Cairo, Egypt, Nader Bakkar, a representative of Salafi al-Nour political party, requested Muslims to engage in a peaceful demonstration against the film outside the US Embassy.

Upon staging the demonstrations, the aftermath was tearing of the American flag and a black flag was raised to replace it. This flag had inscriptions of Muslim faith declarations. The demonstrators also spray-painted the entrance to the US embassy coupled with breaking the embassy’s perimeter wall. Following this incidence, Salafi incredibly engaged in drawing Muslims attention into the YouTube film.

On popularisation of the film, myriads of incidences of riots began across Arabic nations including Syria and others. In all these incidences, there were no cases of loss of life recorded. However, the most questionable reactions to the film are the ones experienced in Libya, something that could have amounted to violation of international law on rights of life for people across the globe as encapsulated in the UN bill on fundamental human rights.

On Tuesday, the 11September 2012, news speedily spread across the world that the lives of Christopher Stevens and three of his assistants were at risk following attacks on the US embassy in Libya by Islam mobs who were angered by a film made in the US in abuse of their holy prophet Mohammad.

The deaths of the four people were latter confirmed with the immense belief that the attacks were conducted by a mob that was lead by the Salafi element that had been engaging in a rampage against what they claimed as “American hatred for Muslim saints” (Speckhardt 2012, Para.1).

It also emerged that the attackers were armed. Therefore, the question that emerges is whether these attacks were meant to be a peaceful demonstration like the ones conducted in Egypt or there were ill intents of acts of terrorism disguised as demonstrations against a film, which American government neither took active roles nor was aware of its preparation.

However, evidently, the film failed to honour freedom of religion as provided for in the international law bill of human rights. The killing of the American citizens also amounted to violation of the international law on people’s rights to life.

However, the due legal course of action in pursuing the matters leading to the demonstration and killing of the American citizens was not followed as provided for in the international law. The filmmaker deserved to have taken individual responsibility for the violation of the basic fundamental rights of freedom of religion.


International relations hinge on the preservation and respect for sovereign rights and rights of people living within a particular nation by actors of the international community. In this sense, international relations discourses act as a source of international law.

Hence, international organisations in charge of fostering international relations, such as the UN, serve as implementers of international law. This role is particularly important in the discussion of the roles of the UN Security Council in offering authority for use of force against states in breach of their sovereign rights such as in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now looming likelihood of attacks on Syria.

Apart from consideration of the isolated cases for applicability of international law in the context of Libyan and Syrian cases, the paper insisted on the significance of international law in matters of protection of human rights and assumption of individual liability to crimes against humanity as stipulated in Rome statues.

Reference List

Cali, B 2010, International Law for International Relations, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Chen, L 2011, ‘ Universalism and Equal Sovereignty as Contested Myths of International Law in the Sino-Western Encounter,’ Journal of the History of International Law, vol. 13 no.2, pp. 75-116.

Chertoff, M 2009, ‘The Responsibility to contain: Protecting sovereignty under international law’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 88 no. 1, pp.130-147.

Craig, M 2013, . Web.

Doebbler, C 2006, Introduction to International Human Rights Law, CD Publishing, Washington, DC.

Graham, M & Wiessner, S 2011, ‘Sovereignty, Culture and International Human Rights Law’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol.110 no.2, pp. 403-427.

Guglielmo, E 2013, ‘The Normative Theory of Sovereignty Transfers’, Stanford Journal of International Law, vol. 49 no. 2, pp.371-382.

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Hongju, K & Doyle, M 2013, ‘The case for International Law’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 92 no. 6, pp.162-165.

Jianping, L & Zhixiang, W 2005, ‘Roles of International criminal law in creating harmony between nations’, Journal of International Criminal Justice, vol.2 no.1, pp.313-345.

Kyl, J, Feith, D & Fonte, J 2013, ‘The war on law’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 92 no. 4, pp.115-125.

Melandri, M 2009, ‘The Relationship Between State Sovereignty and the Enforcement of International Criminal Law Under Rome Statutes (1998): A Complex Interplay’, International Criminal Law Review, vol. 9 no.3, pp.531-545.

Provost, R 2002, International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Schabas, W 2006, The UN International Criminal Tribunals, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Schrock-Jacobson, G 2012, ‘The Violent Consequences of The Nation: Nationalism and the Initiation of the Interstate War’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 56 no. 5, pp. 825-852.

Slomanson, W, 2011, Fundamental Perspectives on International Law, Wadsworth, Boston.

Smith, L 2011, ‘The Wilsonian challenge to international law’, Journal of the History of International Law, vol. 13 no. 1, pp.179-208.

Speckhardt, R 2012, . Web.

Spiro, P & Berkeley, J 2013, ‘ Sovereigntism’s twilight’, Journal of International Law, vol. 31 no. 1, pp. 307-322.

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