Who writes international law?

News is reporting that Crimea voted to leave Ukraine and that President Obama has declared that this violates international law.

Here in Massachusetts, the state legislature writes state laws. The U.S. Congress writes federal laws. So who writes “international laws”? In addition, who enforces them? It’s not as if there is a Executive Branch of World government to enforce those laws.

And as a geography question, what is that small entity on the southeast part of the Crimean peninsula. It’s about the size of Rhode Island and contains the city of Sevastopol, but appears to be excluded from Crimea when the news shows a map of the area.

Sevastopol is a separate administrative entity from the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

As much as I hate to just post a wikipedia link, it does give a fairly good explanation of the different types of international laws, how they come about, and how they are enforced.


Sevastopol is (was?) a “city with special status” directly under the Ukrainian government and separate from the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

My understanding is that there is no single “Big Book of International Law” sitting somewhere that everyone agreed to follow. Rather, when person says “international law” they refer to the various treaties, conventions, United Nations rulings, etc. that states agree to. As OP correctly points out, these treaties are entered into voluntarily and are not enforced by any supranational body with any real power. The UN is supposed to be the tribunal for international law, but we’ve all seen how well that’s been working out lately.

It seems like every nation (Russia, China, US all) will be quick to point to some vaguely defined “international law” when they want to criticize someone but seem to ignore it when it serves their purpose. I’ve also lost count of how many times someone has said, “X is a violation of international law” but never actually cites what international law they are referring to. It’s like it’s just a phrase they trot out when they see something they don’t agree with.

If I am misunderstanding this, someone please correct me.

There’s also international customary law, which just sort of develops and which on principle all states are bound by. Needless to say, what counts as customary law can be disputed at times, although the International Court of Justice may pronounce on it. Enforcing it of course is another matter entirely.

I had a fantastic international law lecturer at university, one of those lecturers you never ever forget. He said that there were essentially 3 main sources of international law:

  1. International Conventions and Treaties (think of how the Chemical Weapons Act made the use of such weapons illegal worldwide).
  2. Custom (this one is harder to define, but it is generally assumed that torture, or attacks on diplomats, are illegal because countries do not usually do them. And if they do, they will never openly admit to it, which after all is a sign of illegality).
  3. General principles of law accepted by civilised nations (these are the very basics, things such as proportionality, etc).

In addition to these three, we have what we can call ‘secondary sources’. These include decisions of international courts such as the ICJ, or even the writings of renowned scholars.

As you can see, it’s all quite vague. It’s hard to tell when an international norm is ‘custom’ and when it is not, so there is a lot of space for interpretation. But I would say that the referendum in Crimea is illegal because it takes place with foreign forces on the ground (this breaches the basic principle of territorial integrity). It’s also illegal under national law, since Ukrainian legislation does not allow for such a referendum.

THEY do. yes THEM. THOSE PEOPLE the radio yappers are always going on about.

What do you have against left-handed Anabaptists?