How Is International Law Enforced?
How Is International Law Enforced?

A treaty may have incorporated into its own text enforcement provisions, such as arbitration of disputes or referral to the ICJ. However, some treaties may not expressly include such enforcement mechanisms. Especially in situations where the international law in question is not explicitly written out in a treaty, one can question how this unwritten law can be enforced. In an international system where there is no overarching authoritative enforcer, punishment for non-compliance functions differently. States are more likely to fear tactics used by other states, such as reciprocity, collective action, and shaming.

Reciprocity. Reciprocity is a type of enforcement by which states are assured that if they offend another state, the other state will respond by returning the same behavior. Guarantees of reciprocal reactions encourage states to think twice about which of their actions they would like imposed upon them. For example, during a war, one state will refrain from killing the prisoners of another state because it does not want the other state to kill its own prisoners. In a trade dispute, one state will be reluctant to impose high tariffs on another state’s goods because the other state could do the same in return.

Collective Action. Through collective action, several states act together against one state to produce what is usually a punitive result. For example, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait was opposed by most states, and they organized through the United Nations to condemn it and to initiate joint military action to remove Iraq. Similarly, the United Nations imposed joint economic sanctions, such as restrictions on trade, on South Africa in the 1980s to force that country to end the practice of racial segregation known as apartheid.

Shaming. (Also known as the “name and shame” approach) Most states dislike negative publicity and will actively try to avoid it, so the threat of shaming a state with public statements regarding their offending behavior is often an effective enforcement mechanism. This method is particularly effective in the field of human rights where states, not wanting to intervene directly into the domestic affairs of another state, may use media attention to highlight violations of international law. In turn, negative public attention may serve as a catalyst to having an international organization address the issue; it may align international grassroots movements on an issue; or it may give a state the political will needed from its populace to authorize further action.A recent example of this strategic tactic was seen in May 2010, when the U.N. named the groups most persistently associated with using child soldiers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (United Nations,


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