Is international law a legal system?

Some time in the future, when I weigh all the things Osgoode did to me, the Jurisprudence class I took last year will definitely add a ton to the good-things side of the scales. Taught by Leslie Green, a world’s major jurisprudence authority and simply a great prof, the course gave me much-needed peace.

See, I am one of those poor souls who desperately need a big picture when they take a task. Law schools, may I say, do not quite target people like that. Fortunately, you can take the optional Jurisprudence class if you are at Osgoode (mandatory in many civil law systems I hear).

Here is the paper I wrote for that class. It addresses a well-worn issue so it’s more of an exercise in logic than in ground-breaking research. But it was fun writing it after reading Hart’s The Concept of Law, Fuller’s The Morality of Law, Raz’s The Authority of Law, and finally, my favourite: Dworkin’s Law’s Empire, for Leslie Green’s class.

If someone goes so very far as to read the actual paper, I will be extremely grateful for any comments.

Is international law a legal system? [pdf, 144 kb]

5 Comments on "Is international law a legal system?"

  1. I asked the same question, right before I started law school.

    Since then, I’ve refined my position to suggest that international law does exist, but it is a different type of law than we commonly think of.

    Perhaps the greatest example of the existence of an “international legal system” is that many international laws are incorporated into domestic law. As you mention, states themselves choose to bind their actions through custom and treaty. Human rights legislation is just one example of this, but there are many others.

    This does not mean that there are not problems with enforcing international law. It does not mean that international laws are not broken. And it does not mean that international laws can change from what they are now to something else in the future.

    But all of these problems are also present in domestic legal systems.

  2. Gee, what an interesting paper. Close to the end of it, you say: “This is the necessary first step in proving the nature of international law as a legal system. Next, I would like to demonstrate that international law is efficacious. Since an empirical proof seems impractical, I propose a theory based on Lon Fuller’s ideas43 and an “interactional theory of international law”44. This theory argues that international law is efficacious because it possesses internal morality.”

    I would like to suggest, since you asked for suggestions, that in the next step after that, you start to consider what the unique character of an “international legal system” would be. Every real system has qualities unique to it.

    Also, I can see the broad applicability of your reasoning in the paper to considerations of other global systems, for example, to the virtual system of protocols whereby “intelligence organizations” such as CSIS, M16, the C.I.A, and the JTTF share info with each other and with other “friendlies.”

    And speaking of virtuality, it strikes me that your international legal system has something of a ‘virtual’ character to it.

    There are a couple of people I can think of who might be helpful to you along the way in your search to arrive at the essential nature of the ILS. One is “Pithlord,” a lawyer who works for the B.C. govt and is an expert in “pith and substance law.” Seriously, he is. He’s written books and he gets quoted in court cases by judges. His blog URL is:
    We don’t personally agree on many things; but he’s a very nice man, and he will help you if he can.
    The other person you might look up on your way to Damascus is Andy Moyer. He’s an expert in systematics:

    Also, if you publish anything more along these lines, I would love to read it. If you develop your theory to the point of publishing a book along these lines, I would definitely buy it.
    My email address is
    So don’t forget me if you publish anything.

  3. Thank you very much for your comments. Marnie, I’ll think about writing more on this topic…

  4. David Shulman | June 26, 2009 at 11:29 pm |

    Were you once a philosophy student?

  5. David, no, never had a chance. But I had math and logic training, and I like analytic jurisprudence.

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