A glimpse of International Law

U Khin Maung (A retired diplomat)


1. Please let me be honest. I am not an international law ex­pert. International law is so wide, so delicate and so demanding a subject that, I believe, only the highly qualified jurists and emi­nent scholars shall have all the credentials and the capabilities to write it, comprehensively, compe­tently and convincingly. It is quite a task. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll be good enough to let me present just a glimpse of international law from a law student’s point of view. In saying “a law student’s point of view”, believe me, I really mean it in the literal sense of the phrase. And on this point, I think, you may wish to ask me; why do you, an oldie, a retired civil servant, con­sider yourself a law student? My answer is simply because I am still giving my time to studying a few subjects I am interested in. And, of course, international law is a subject that I like to study for my own academic interest. Still, I think, you might wish to shoot me another question. Why, despite your age, do you keep on learning? Again, my answer is, because I believe that there is no end to the learning process; in other words, because I believe, “no educative process is, ever the end; it is always the beginning of more education, more learning, more living”. Well, on the question of the process of learning, may I ask you, my dear reader, to have your opinion? What do you say? I wonder.


Now, let’s say something about the topic.


What is international law?

2. International law is the “law of nations” or a body of rules that govern inter-state re­lations. International law treats all states the same; no matter what they are big or small, rich or poor, strong or weak. Hence the principle: equality before the law. States are subjects of inter­national law. States are to follow and abide by international law and international law is not for the states to take into their own hands and abuse to their advantage. For being subjects of international law, states have international personalities. By virtue of this, states have rights to enjoy and duties to fulfil under international law. On the other hand, there is also a growing concept that under international law individuals and corporations have rights and du­ties in certain situations. And yet there is another widely accepted view that, after all, it is the states that have to represent the indi­viduals and corporations in their relations with their counterparts.


3. In the widest possible sense, international law may be classified into two kinds: custom­ary international law and conven­tional international law. Custom­ary international law is that type of law which is based upon the well-established age-old customs, traditions and certain rules of con­duct, which the modern states have accepted to be binding on them and which they have also agreed as to their enforceabili­ty by appropriate means in case of their violations. Conventional international law is that branch of law, which takes as its source the agreements, decisions, and resolutions, reached upon and adopted by the international con­ventions and/or the multilateral treaties. For example, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, etc.


The role of international law in today’s world

4. With the increasing pop­ularity and worldwide application of Information and Communica­tion Technology-ICT — the world is being regarded as a single com­munity or a global village. And in this global village of ours, we come to have swifter, easier and more convenient contacts and communications with each other, states with states; peoples with peoples. Thus, states become more and more interdependent and interactive. As such, each state has obviously become “a member in the family of nations”. So, in this ICT age, I think, inter­national law has come to have a more active and important role to play as it becomes central to the international community con­cerns. In this connection, I think, “the doctrine of incorporation” should be explained in brief – “the doctrine of incorporation” is the principles recognized by many states that the international law is part of i.e., incorporated into the laws of the land. Consequently, the courts take judicial notice of it. The constitutions of a number of states expressly provide for the adoption of the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land.


5. Well, now, the sovereign equality of states: I firmly be­lieve it is the cardinal principle of international law. With a view to reinvigorating the principles of international law, concerning friendly relations and cooperation among states in accordance with the UN Charter, the 25th session of the United Nations General Assembly solemnly proclaimed them under its resolution, GA 2625 (XXV). It was simply called General Assembly Declaration. The principles thus proclaimed include inter alia the following: -

— The principle concerning the duty not to intervene in mat­ters which fall within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.

— The duty of states to co­operate with one another.

— The principle of equal rights and self-determination of the peoples.

— The principle of sover­eign equality of states.


On the principle of sover­eign equality of states, the Decla­ration stressed that:

— States enjoy sovereign equality. They have equal rights and duties and they are equal members of the international community, notwithstanding dif­ferences of an economic, politi­cal or other nature. In particular, sovereign equality includes the following elements.


(1) All states are juridically equal.

(2) Each state enjoys the rights inherent in full sovereignty.

(3) Each state has the duty to respect the personality of other states.

(4) The territorial integrity and political independence of the state are inviolable.

(5) Each state has the right to freely choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems.

(6) Each state has the duty to comply fully and in good faith with its international obligations and to live in peace with other states.

6. The General Assembly Declaration also proclaimed that the principles of the UN Charter should constitute the basic princi­ples of international law. It further appealed to all states to be guided by these principles in their inter­national conduct and to develop their mutual relations on the basis of their strict observance.


7. Well, the aforementioned are just a gist of the principles of international law proclaimed by the General Assembly Dec­laration - GA2625 (XXV). But all these principles, if I may have to express my own opinion, should not remain mere solemn procla­mations in the UN resolution, nor mere splendid words recorded in UN documents. Each and every principle should be strictly and unreservedly followed and ob­served by all states in good faith. Moreover, I would also like to say, if a law or a principle is to be fol­lowed, it must be followed “not only to the letter of the law but also to the spirit as well”. Then, states shall treat each other with mutual respect and the rule of law shall prevail in inter-state rela­tions. And then and only I think, the undesirable tendencies of “some countries to sit in judge­ment over others, and the big to bully the small, the rich to oppress the poor, and the strong to lord it over the weak” shall disappear from this earth once and for all. I hope you’ll agree with me. What do you say, my dear reader?



(1) International law, a treatise by L Oppenheim.

(2) Diplomatic Handbook, Min­istry of Foreign Affairs.

(3) Significant terms and their meanings in international law, International law and treaties division, MOFA.