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Who enforces international law?

International laws are enforced through reciprocity, collective action, and shaming.

International Laws are notoriously hard to enforce. About all that anyone can do is to put pressure on a country that it is not meeting the expectations of international law. Pressure often comes in the form of reciprocity, collective action, and shaming.

Reciprocity: Reciprocity is a type of enforcement by which states are assured that if they offend another state, the other state will respond by returning the same behavior. Guarantees of reciprocal reactions encourage states to think twice about which of their actions they would like imposed upon them. For example, during a war, one state will refrain from killing the prisoners of another state because it does not want the other state to kill its own prisoners. In a trade dispute, one state will be reluctant to impose high tariffs on another state’s goods because the other state could do the same in return.

Collective Action: Through collective action, several states act together against one state to produce what is usually a punitive result. For example, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait was opposed by most states, and they organized through the United Nations to condemn it and to initiate joint military action to remove Iraq. Similarly, the United Nations imposed joint economic sanctions, such as restrictions on trade, on South Africa in the 1980s to force that country to end the practice of racial segregation known as apartheid.

Shaming: (Also known as the “name and shame” approach) Most states dislike negative publicity and will actively try to avoid it, so the threat of shaming a state with public statements regarding their offending behavior is often an effective enforcement mechanism. This method is particularly effective in the field of human rights where states, not wanting to intervene directly into the domestic affairs of another state, may use media attention to highlight violations of international law. A recent example of this strategic tactic was seen in August 2008, when the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted to “name and shame” countries and insurgent groups engaged in conflict that lead to the raping, maiming, or killing of children.

Check Your Understanding

  1. This term refers to any action taken together by a group of people (or countries).  
  2. This term refers to the tactic of bringing dishonor and disgrace on someone (or a country).
  3. This term refers to the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.