The development of International Law is one of the primary goals of the United Nations. The Charter of the United Nations, in its Preamble, sets the objective "to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained".
International Law defines the legal responsibilities of States in their conduct with each other, and their treatment of individuals within State boundaries. Its domain encompasses a wide range of issues of international concern such as human rights, disarmament, international crime, refugees, migration, problems of nationality, the treatment of prisoners, the use of force, and the conduct of war, among others. It also regulates the global commons, such as the environment, sustainable development, international waters, outer space, global communications and world trade.
More than 500 multilateral treaties have been deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Many other treaties are deposited with governments or other entities.
The General Assembly is the main deliberative body of the United Nations. Many multilateral treaties are adopted by it and subsequently opened for signature and ratification by member States of the United Nations.
The General Assembly has adopted a number of multilateral treaties throughout its history, including:
- Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948)
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
- United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
- Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (1996)
- International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999)
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006)
The Legal (Sixth) Committee is the primary forum for the consideration of legal questions in the General Assembly. Many international instruments, including a number of international treaties have been adopted by the General Assembly on the basis of the recommendation of the Committee.
The International Law Commission was established by the General Assembly in 1948 with a mandate to undertake the progressive development and codification of international law under article 13(1)(a) of the Charter of the United Nations. As an expert legal body, its task is to prepare draft conventions on subjects, which have not yet been regulated by international law and to codify rules of international law in fields, where there already has been extensive State practice. The Commission’s work in criminal law led to the adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court. It also drafted the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), among others.
Treaties and other international legal instruments are also developed by the specialized agencies of the United Nations, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), by the subsidiary organs of the United Nations, such as the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and by multilateral negotiating bodies, such as the Conference on Disarmament.
To become party to a treaty, a State must express, through a concrete act, its willingness to undertake the legal rights and obligations contained in the treaty – it must “consent to be bound” by the treaty. This is usually accomplished through signature and ratification of the treaty, or if it’s already in force, by accession to it.
Each year, the UN holds a Treaty Event, highlighting a group of treaties, as a way to encourage Member States to sign, ratify or otherwise support these treaties.
Different treaties may create different treaty body regimes to encourage the parties to abide by their obligations and undertake actions required for compliance.
Legal disputes between states can be referred to the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, which also gives advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by duly authorized international organs and agencies.
The international community has long aspired to create a permanent international court to try the most serious international crimes, and, in the 20th century, it reached consensus on definitions of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials addressed war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity committed during the Second World War.
In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and for Rwanda (ICTR) were established to fight impunity by trying crimes committed within a specific time-frame and during a specific conflict. In 2010, the UN Security Council created the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) to carry out a number of essential functions of the two ad hoc tribunals after the completion of their respective mandates. The Arusha, Tanzania branch of MICT started functioning in July 2012, while the branch located in The Hague, Netherlands will take over from the ICTY in July 2013.
The ICC is an independent international organization, and is not part of the United Nations system. Its seat is at The Hague in the Netherlands.
17 cases in 7 situations have been brought before the International Criminal Court. Cases are referred to the Court by states parties, by the UN Security Council or on the initiative of the Court’s Prosecutor. To date, there have been three state referrals from the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and the Central African Republic, and two referrals from the United Nations Security Council regarding the situation in Darfur and the situation in Libya.