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Hard Laws and Soft Laws

Some international laws are "harder" than others.

International law is sometimes divided into “hard” laws and “soft” laws.

Hard laws are treaties and formal agreements between two or more countries.  In other words, they are laws that you have agreed to.

Soft laws fall into several categories:

Imagine that the U.S. and Mexico have gotten together to try to solve the problem of drug trafficking across U.S.- Mexico border. The two countries can’t agree on much; however, they don’t want to leave the table without some sort of agreement. In this case, they might sign a statement which says:

“Both the U.S. and Mexico will try to prevent drug traffickers from crossing the border.”

That’s one type of soft law. It still counts as a legal obligation, but it’s not hard to see why it’s called a soft law.

The other kind of soft law is a “widely held expectation about how countries should behave.”

For example, for thousands of years, countries have given protection to ambassadors. As far back as ancient Greece and Rome, ambassadors from another country were not harmed while on their diplomatic missions, even if they represented a country at war with the country they were located in. Furthermore, throughout history, many countries have publicly stated that they believe that ambassadors should be given this protection. Therefore, today, if a country harmed an ambassador it would certainly be violating a “soft” international law.

 

Check Your Understanding

An anti-personnel landmine (APL) is a type of bomb that is hidden in the ground and blows up when a person steps on it. APL’s are nasty weapons that often maim or kill civilians, so in 1997, 156 states joined together and signed the Ottawa Treaty, a treaty which bans the production and use of landmines. A few dozen countries—including the United States—have refused to sign the treaty.

  1. Is the Ottawa Treaty an international law? Explain your answer.
  2. If Canada—a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty—were to start using landmines, would it be breaking any “hard” international laws? Explain your answer.
  3. The United States continues to manufacture and use APL’s. By doing so, is the United States breaking any “hard” international laws? Explain your answer.
  4. By continuing to manufacture and use APL’s, is the United States breaking any “soft” international laws? Explain your answer.
  5. Where was the Ottawa Treaty signed?