Why Do States Obey International Law?

Posted On : May 26, 2022
Why Do States Obey International Law?
Earlier, international law as a subject was a concern mostly for students of legal, commerce and public relations fraternity. However, the Russia-Ukraine war has recently blossomed interest for international laws among the general public as well. Those who understand the concept of sovereignty inquire ‘Does a sovereign state have to adhere to the international law?’. A detailed understanding of what exactly is it and why do states obey international law is attempted below.
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The recent Russia invasion of Ukraine followed by the Bucha Ukraine massacre has majorly put a question mark over the sanctity of public international law. Will the current scenario result in the demise of International law through World War 3? Or would it result in reincarnation of the answer to why do states obey international law? Probably nobody in the whole world will be able to project a concrete answer to this. At this level, why do nations obey international law summary may help understand the context. Before heading towards the know-hows of compliance with international law, it should be noted that what we call nations or countries at domestic level becomes a state when it comes to international law. Hence, hereunder, the terms states, countries as well as nations hold the common meaning, i.e. a sovereign territory having its own government in power.  


What is International Law?

In India, there are numerous laws applicable over individuals, families, companies, firms, professions, and the list goes on. Every country subjects the citizens as well as non-citizens in that country to abide by certain rules. Humans are made to abide by some laws in order to maintain civilization. How could the same not apply internationally beyond the borders? The norms which regulate inter-state relations at the world level are called international laws. The sources of international law include customary practices, treaties, conventions, scholarly writings, general principles of law recognized by civilised nations, etc. subject to the types of international laws.


Why do States Obey International Law?

Years back through his book on ‘How Nations Behave (1979)’, Louis Henkin asserted that "almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time. This is the first mantra to be considered before getting into the depths of compliance with International Law. If it is about domestic or municipal laws (laws applicable within a country), the acts or omissions are done by real or juristic persons against whom, punishment can be imposed for committing acts prohibited by law. But when it comes to a nation, a whole country can not be put behind the bars for disobedience, or things would have been under control combating the ongoing Russia-Ukraine invasion. Then why do countries obey international law? Some of the probable reasons that support why do nations obey international law summary are as follows:


Reasons for Compliance with International Law

  • It promotes fair process
  • Good for international acceptance
  • Easy implementation through international assistance
  • Promotes diplomatic relations  
  • Beneficial for multilateral treaties

Does Every State Agree to Follow the International Laws?

The degree of compliance with international law varies depending upon the nature of laws. If it is a bilateral or multilateral treaty or convention, the parties explicitly agree to the terms mentioned. However, there is scope for reservations as well, i.e. terms which may be evaded without compliance. If in case a country is a member of an international body whereby a charter is introduced for support by the members, it is a matter of choice whether to agree or disagree, or to agree by what extent. Some countries may also expressly deny compliance with international laws introduced through a convention. Thus, the answer to ‘does every state agree to follow the international laws?’ is not accurate but conditional.


Is International Law Binding on States?

Those who have studied international law jurisprudence must be aware that international law is said to be a weak law due to lack of authority. Had there been any binding effect, the orders of the International Court of Justice restricting Russian invasion in Ukraine would have been complied with by now. However, the same may get force if implemented at the national level through incorporation in the municipal laws. One such example was Vishaka guidelines in Vishakha and others vs State of Rajasthan (1997) which sought force from India’s international agreement to prevent sexual harassment of women at workplace. The court also relied upon the International laws which India was a signing party to. Vishaka guidelines were the foundation stone for Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Contact international lawyers in India for matters beyond borders.


How Effective is International Law?

Wherever state parties in case of conflict initiate dialects rather than war, it reflects the compliance with international law only. The success of globalisation across the world lays perfect examples of states complying with international law. However, the effectiveness of international law sometimes also depends upon the superpowers in the world like the United States of America, Britain, etc. Thus, the effectiveness behind ‘why do countries obey international law?’ has its roots in the interest of those who stand in support of a particular matter. 


What Happens When a Country Violates International Law?

Since there is no authoritative body to punish a member state in the absence of compliance with international law, does a sovereign state have to adhere to the international law? Just like a person has to maintain relations with relatives, neighbours and friends for the sake of odd times. So is the case with nations who have to maintain international relations keeping up with certain possibilities. The examples of states complying with international law gain force from various factors as depicted below:

  • In case of non-compliance, member countries may take back the existing benefits
  • International name shame
  • There are penalties for non-compliance
  • Ease of business in foreign country affected
  • International sanctions/ penalties from member states
  • There may be trade bans
  • Multilateral boycott

Probable Reasons for Non-Compliance with International Law

  • The cost required for implementation outweighs the projected benefits
  • There is a lack of sanctions against non-compliance by State
  • Norms are illegitimate or unfair as per the State policy
  • State’s incapacity to implement
  • Too less time given for implementation
  • There is some sort of ambiguity in the norms to be implemented



    If somebody asks, do states comply with international law? why or why not?, it can be denied if the matter is against the interests of a country, as per those in power. However, the same can be agreed upon if the compliance with international law benefits the country’s interests as also suggested by lawyers. Thus, even the international law treatment takes place not at the world pedestal but as a national only. Whether it is good or bad after understanding why do states obey international law, it still remains a debatable topic.

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