International Legal Personality: The Subjects of International Law

AuthorJohn H. Currie
Chapter 2
a. relevaNCe aNd defiNitioN of
Perhaps no topic more readily illustrates the sharp distinct ion between
international and domestic legal systems tha n that of “subjects.” A sus-
tained discus sion of who or what constitutes a subject of the law would
likely seem quite curious to most domestic lawyers, as the application
of the law to all individuals and other legal persons (such as corpora-
tions) is a virtu al given in most domestic legal systems founded upon
the rule of l aw. Moreover, the law in most domestic legal systems ap-
plies primari ly to individuals and only secondarily, in accordance with
the rules est ablishing and regulating them, to artif‌icial or corporate
legal persons.
Precisely the opposite is t rue in the international legal system.
From its inception (and indeed by def‌inition) international law has ap-
plied not to real persons at all but almost exclusively to a surprisingly
small number of artif‌icial, politico-legal entit ies known as states. It is
for this reason that international law has often been refer red to as the
“law of n ations”1 law that govern s the rights and obligations of na-
tions or states.
1 See, for example, Hugo Grotiu s, Three Books Treating of the Rights of War and
Peace , 1625 (London: M.W. for Thomas Basset, 1682), ed. by J.B. Scott, tr ans. by
While, as we shall see below, there has been some evolution in the
range of subjects to which international law now applies, states remain
its primary subjects. Even with the dramatic changes in the compos-
ition of the international community since the end of the Second World
War, this means that t he international legal system still largely applies
only to a select club of less than 200 subjects or so.
However, caution is in order here. There are no f‌irm rules of inter-
national law that necessarily limit the classe s of its potential subjects.
While it is true that states were at one time the sole, and remain today the
prin cipal, subj ects of int ernation al law, state s as we sha ll see are also in a
very real sense the authors of internationa l law.2 Thus, to the extent that
states permit intern ational law to evolve s o as to encompass potential
new classes of subjects (as indeed they have over the past sixty years or
so), it becomes necessary to evaluate the international legal personality
of such new cla sses. It may accordingly be helpful to think of states as
“primary” subjects of intern ational l aw that is, subjects by def‌inition
or as of right and to think of other international legal subjects as “sec-
ondary” subjects — that is, subjects of international l aw only to the ex-
tent and for the purposes permitted by its prima ry subjects, states.3
Once it is conceded that entities other t han states m ay emerge as
secondary subjects of international law, it becomes important to def‌ine
what is meant by an international legal subject. What are the attributes
of an international legal subject? What privileges and obligations are
associated with such status? The International Court of Justice, in its
landmark Advisory Opinion in the Reparations Case,4 addressed these
questions in def‌ining the criter ia for inter national legal personality. A
subject of international law, wrote the Court, is “capable of possess-
ing international r ights and duties, and … ha s capacity to mai ntain its
rights by bringing internat ional claims.”5 While this def‌inition may be
somewhat circular, it is generally considered to ref‌lect the essence of
what it means, in effect, to enjoy international legal personality.
F. Kelsey, Classics of Inter national Law Series (Oxford: O xford University Press,
1925); J.L. Brierly, The Law of Nations, 6th ed. by H. Waldock (Oxford: Cl aren-
don Press, 1963).
2 See Chapters 3 –5.
3 A. Casse se, International Law, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford Un iversity Press, 2005) at
71. On this dist inction, see further S ection D, below in this chapter, in par ticu-
lar the dicta of t he International Court of Just ice in the Reparations Case c on-
cerning t he “lesser” personality of i nternational organi zations when compared
to that of state s, below note 4.
4 Reparation for Injurie s Suffered in the Service of the United Nations, Ad visory Opin-
ion, [1949] I.C.J. Rep. 174 [Reparations Case].
5 Ibid. at 179.
Internation al Legal Personality: The Subje cts of International L aw 23
With this in mind we turn now to consider various candidates for
international legal subject status and t he extent of their international
legal personality — starting of course w ith the most obvious candidate
of all, states.
b. states as prim ary iNterNatioNal
legal subjeCts
1) Introduction
As obser ved above,6 i nternational law as a legal system evolved in re-
sponse to the emergence of a new form of societal organi zation in Eur-
ope —the modern n ation-state. Along with these new entities came a
need for a legal system to regulate their mutual rights, obligations, and
interactions. Thus, from the outset, states have been the very raison
d’être of the internat ional legal system and thus it s principal (and until
recently, its sole) subjects.
In this section we will examine the generally accepted criteria for
statehood that is, how one knows if a particular entity is a state and
thus entitled to the full range of rights and subject to all the duties of state-
hood established by international law. We will then consider some of the
basic rights and obligations of states in international l aw, as well as vari-
ous legal issues surrounding the birth, li fe cycle, and demise of states.
2) Criteria for Statehood
Although t he cr iteria for statehood have been established in custom-
ary international law through long usage,7 a convenient and frequently
cited restatement of thos e criteria is found in the so-called Montevideo
Convention.8 Article 1 of the Convention provides as follows:
The state as a p erson of international l aw should posse ss the follow-
ing qualif‌ications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a def‌ined terri-
6 See Chapter 1.
7 See Chapter 5.
8 Convention on the Rights an d Duties of States, 26 December 1933 (entered into
force 26 December 1934), (1934) 28 AJ.I.L. Supp. 75. Although a regiona l treaty
arrangement b etween the United States of Ame rica and a number of Latin
American st ates, it is generally consider ed to ref‌lect a universally applic able if
not wholly satisfa ctory def‌inition of stateho od.

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