International Law: Origins, Development, and Principles

Module 4 Essay: International Law:

Origins, Development, and Principles

Bethany Herold

Political Science 105

Professor Chad Smith

Although some may argue the value of international law, it has become the cornerstone for successful international relations and peace. The origins of international law date all the way back to First Geneva Convention in 1864. This convention was monumental, because it set into place the first world-wide accepted laws: “relief to the wounded without any distinction as to nationality; neutrality (inviolability) of medical personnel and medical establishments and units; and the distinctive sign of the red cross on a white ground.” (Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. ). Shortly after WWI, diplomats began to realize the fallacies of pre-war international relations. As noted by the present United Nations today, “this was the first attempt on a worldwide basis to codify and develop whole fields of international law rather than simply regulating individual and specific legal problems.” (International Law Commission – Introduction). A product of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the League began with a document comprised of fourteen points as a solution to the calamities caused by the recent war. Attempting to lessen the harsh repercussions against Germany, Wilson’s points were all but rejected. However, the League of Nations was still birthed in hopes of avoiding future world wars, with intentions to form joint diplomacy on an international scale. The League ultimately failed because of lack of organization and direction, but it set the stage for growth and reaching an agreed upon international law.

Development of international law flourished following the League of Nations, and “most of today’s basic international legal doctrines and institutions received definite shape in the 1920s and 1930s, an extraordinarily active period of legal innovation.” (Koskenniemi, 2011, pg. 1). Near the close of WWII in 1944, the Bretton Woods Conference laid the foundation for the post war international economic system, and also established the World Bank and the IMF. Also around this time, international trials took place in Nuremberg, Germany to decide the fate of indicted Nazi leaders for their war crimes and transgressions against humanity. In all, “Twenty-four major political and military leaders of Nazi Germany…were brought to trial before the International Military Tribunal.” (Laçiner, Özcan, and Bal 78). Aside from that, more than one hundred additional defendants were tried before the United States Nuremberg Military Tribunals in a series of 12 trials known as Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. Several of the most crucial war criminals, for example Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels, were not officially tried. They evaded these trials, and their dismal outcomes, because they had all committed suicide before the trials had begun. The trials were officially held from November 20th, 1945 to October 1st, 1946, and were conducted by four Allied Powers: the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviets. Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence, a British member, presided over the proceedings, which lasted 10 months and consisted of 216 court sessions. (Nuremberg trials begin 1).

The international stress caused by both world wars lead to the formation of today’s United Nations. Today, international law “consists of treaties and established customs recognized by most nations. (Roskin et al., 2014, pg. 244). Its power derives from its acceptance by the nation states which constitute the system. Because compliance is voluntary, it is broken down into two primary categories: customary law and conventional law. Customary international law is used for nations that comply out of a sense of legal obligation. Conventional international law is in regards to international agreements and are based on the form that contracting parties agree upon. When issues arise and and no treaty or statute is recognized, the principles of international law aid in keeping the peace. This is achieved because the “common law and the civil law, which by themselves share common principles of law, provide the basic framework that many general principles of law can be derived and used to fill the gap when there is no general principle of international law available for application in the resolution of a particular case.” (Apple, 2007, pg. 1). Through this system, though far from perfect, the world’s nations work diligently to lessen global conflicts.


60th Anniversary – Background Information, what is the Bretton Woods Conference. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2015, from

Apple, J. (2007). What are General Principles of International Law? International Judicial Monitor,Volume 2(Issue 2).

Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. Geneva, 22 August 1864. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2015, from OpenDocument

International Law Commission – Introduction. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2015, from

Koskenniemi, M. (2011, June 1). History of International Law, World War I to World War II. Retrieved April 11, 2015, from 9780199231690-e715

Laçiner, Sedat, Mehmet Özcan, and İhsan Bal. USAK Yearbook of International Politics and Law. 2010 ed. Vol. 3. Ankara: International Strategic Research Organization, 2008. Print.

“Nuremberg trials begin.” 2014. The History Channel website. April 10, 2015, 2:54

Roskin, M., Cord, R., Medeiros, J., & Jones, W. (2014). Political science: An Introduction (13th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.


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