Public international law is legally binding on nation states in their interactions with other states, international organisations, and individuals. It covers a range of activities from the conduct of war, trade, and human rights.
Historically international law sought mainly to regulate exchanges and dealings between States. For example, and at a basic level it governed how a state treated foreign diplomats who were based in the host country.
On another level it defined how international agreements between states could and should be regulated. International law seeks to set out legal obligations that states have to one another, but also their responsibilities, and rights against one another. This traditional aspect of international law is based on the sovereign nature of the state and therefore the equality between the state parties. This traditional and long-established view of international law essentially seeks to regulate states as equals.
It is important to remember that international law now increasingly regulates interactions between States and non-State actors.
What is a non-state actor?
A non-state actor can be a number of things, an individual, Non-Governmental Organisation (think Medicines san Frontiers); other types of international organisations, and even multinational companies.
In the context of public law, judicial review, and international law it is the case of an individual and an organisation where we maybe able to help.
International law provides each individual certain rights, for example international human rights law gives the individual a right not to be tortured. This means that a government cannot torture someone they deem a ‘terrorist’ to obtain information. It also provides a right to life. International law imposes on state bodies obligations and responsibilities to protect individuals. In times of war a state cannot target and kill civilians of the other state who did not take part in hostilities.
The evolution of international law
As stated, international law is evolving. Increasingly international law covers diverse subjects and is applied increasingly in what would initially appear to be a domestic public law challenge. International law is increasingly applied in cases relating to the conduct of war – humanitarian law, treatment of people – human rights, and protecting the environment.
How can international law be used?
Outlined below are examples of how international law has been used in public law claims in the Courts in the UK, and against government departments.
International law is used to bring actions against states on behalf of individuals who have been tortured – see R (Al Skeini and others) v Secretary of State for Defence EWHC 2911 (Admin)
It has been used in crucial cases to defend the environment. In the case of Client Earth (no.2) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, CO/1508/2016
In this case Client Earth won a legal challenge against the Government over its failure to tackle illegal air pollution across the UK. Engaging European an International law Client Earth where able to show to use law to force the state to properly consider and engage with their international legal responsibilities.
Currently we are looking at a number of cases where we hope to use international law principles to help our clients.
It important to remember that international law is not stagnant. It is evolving. In domestic law challenges against the state it can be used to broaden out a legal challenge.