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Ralph Zacklin: a personal perspective on international law

What does international law truly mean in the world today? For the publication of Malcom Evans’s International Law, Fourth edition, we asked several leading figures that question. Ralph Zacklin, the former UN Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs, provides his personal perspective on international in the edited essay below. A full version of his essay can be found on the textbook’s Online Resource Centre, along with five other personal perspectives.

By Ralph Zacklin

I have been privileged to work for almost thirty years as an international lawyer in the United Nations and from this vantage point international law is neither the omnipotent solution to the world’s problems nor is it an illusion that only die-hard pacifists cling to. It is, in fact, for the practitioner a very real and pragmatic discipline. That it may be uncertain, incomplete, and difficult to enforce does not lessen the need for the rule of law on the international plane nor does it mean that the efforts to codify the law and develop its institutions should cease or be diminished.

At the core of contemporary international law is the Charter of the United Nations. It is a tribute to its drafters in the San Francisco Conference that this instrument has retained its essential validity as a set of fundamental principles which have guided the community of States for more than fifty years. It is the basis for the development of much of international law as we know it today in such key areas as human rights, the environment, and the law of the sea and outer space, not to mention the vast array of multilateral treaties in numerous technical, economic, and scientific areas.

International law provides a common legal vocabulary within which States and other actors operate. It provides a framework for conceptions of what is ‘legal’ or ‘right’. For the author personally, the most striking lesson of the last thirty years is not the quantitative qualitative development of international law which has been substantial but the degree to which States have come to accept the existence of international law as a standard that must be observed or by which their actions must be justified.

There is another dimension to international law which is sometimes overlooked in an era of globalization. International law, however inchoate it may be, represents the expectations and claims of substantial segments of humanity. It cannot be dismissed merely because of its perceived weakness. This dimension is of particular relevance to the member States of the United Nations, the overwhelming majority of whom rely on international law-making processes in international forums to weave together the fabric of the rule of law.

This accounts for the persistence of the United Nations in the holding of major conferences or summits––much derided in some quarters––which have produced soft law Declarations on the environment, human rights, advancement of women and a panoply of economic and social rights. These fora move from agenda-setting gradually towards normative outcomes and have undeniably altered the international legal landscape over the past twenty-five years.

Law, whether domestic or international, is by nature a conservative discipline. Its evolution is slow, even laborious. International law is not, nor should it be, viewed as an ideal state in which harmony prevails. Like any other system of law, its rules and institutions mature over time. When one compares the international law of today with that of a mere three decades ago, one cannot but marvel at the advances that have been made both normatively and institutionally. The path of advancement is by no means uneventful but it continues.

I have been fortunate in my own career to have had the opportunity to contribute to significant developments in international law, such as the establishment of ad hoc criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda as well as, more recently, the Special Court in Sierra Leone. Over the years I have provided legal advice which has helped to shape much of the contemporary law of UN peace-keeping and, like many of my colleagues, have rejoiced in the completion of UN mandates which have resulted in the independence of countries such as Namibia and Timor-Leste. There have also been tragic failures in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia.

At the outset of my career I was motivated like many young people of the time by an idealistic determination to make the world a safer and a better place. Over the years my idealism has certainly been tested, but I believe that the role and impact of international law has grown, and it continues to grow.

Ralph Zacklin is the former UN Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs. Malcolm Evans is a Professor of Public International Law at the University of Bristol. Malcolm Evans is the editor of International Law, which provides wide-ranging analysis of all the key issues and themes in public international law and brings together an outstanding collection of interesting and diverse writings from the leading scholars in the field.

Oxford University Press is a leading publisher in international law, including the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, latest titles from thought leaders in the field, and a wide range of law journals and online products. We publish original works across key areas of study, from humanitarian to international economic to environmental law, developing outstanding resources to support students, scholars, and practitioners worldwide. For the latest news, commentary, and insights follow the International Law team on Twitter @OUPIntLaw.

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  1. [...] changes in a meta sense. How legal institutions are either strengthening or not. These are givens. Ralph Zacklin argues that the institutional framework that supports application of public internatio…. He may be biased, as a long time UN Official. But his views are [...]

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