Similar to most laws, international rules are seldom enforced, however are habitually complied with . Nowadays, more than 50,000 international treaties are in force that cover a wide range of international affairs and state sovereignty, however, due to it’s deficiency of having a ‘coercive enforcement’, scholars have argued that state compliance with international law is an occurrence of ‘self-interest’. This essay aims to critically asses when and why states comply with international law and whether or not states act out of self-interest, in the light of international legal scholarships and international relations. 

International law, is widely described as “rules that govern relations between states, and in some cases, between other legally recognised international actors”. All states in the present-day world, are obligated to rationalise their actions in accordance with laws and the accepted norms. In it’s essence, the extent of states complying to international obligations has evolved throughout history, where it’s described to have originated subsequent to two significant developments within European history. First, being the Treaty of Westphalia which is accepted as the origin of traditional international law as it defined the ‘principles of territory’ and ‘state autonomy’. Second, succeeding the wars commenced within Europe, states became integrating on a global scale, thus, making the United Nations Charter to become the international framework for “which norms of sovereignty and non-intervention were manifested” Following the developments of globalisation in consideration of the areas such as technology, communication, etc. norms and legal rules has managed to reach almost all states. Although there are significant developments within international law and the appropriate norms, it has not been adequate enough of being authoritative for the states to comply consistently. It can be argued that the scope of when states comply international obligations differs.

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When tackling the variance of compliance, states follow the principle of pacta sunt servanda which in definition under Article 26 of The Vienna Convention is “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” , thus, it could be argued that, the consensus for the treaties and norms, has consequently plummeted sovereignty and instead strengthened international institutions, non-state actors. However, in understanding when states comply with international rules, a study by Elise Whitaker provides insight within states that are generally considered as ‘weak’. The study considered the scope of compliance of ‘anti-terrorism rhetoric’ between East African states that had been colonised by the British in the past. Her study showed that although the countries had close correspondence, the states had revealed different measures of compliance and that the most significant element in compliance were do to national measures and factors. Moreover, the study also led way to the argument of states complying due to self-interest since, in the case of the East African countries, complying to the anti-terrorism initiative would have given the states a ground for an arrangement of further aid for their countries.

In understanding ‘why’ states comply with international law, scholars assess in the light of five crucial theories; realism, institutionalism, liberalism, constructivism and the rational choice theories.


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