Subjects of International Law

Traditionally states only, have been the subject of international law.  States are the exclusive subject of international law and the only entities with direct rights and responsibility.  Individuals might be the objects but not the subject of international law.

They might benefit from international law but are not in a position to enforce it directly. In this context, individuals refer to both individual persons and groups as well as corporate entities.

The above position has evolved to some extent. The subject objection distinction has been criticized. It is argued that individuals are participants rather than objects or subjects in the international legal system.  International law has evolved to allow for some limited participation by individuals in the international legal order.


Individual Rights

To a growing extent,  individuals have been afforded some rights under international law.  Many such rights are in the nature of immunities, such as those for diplomats, et cetera. Many such rights may not be judiciable. However, in some cases, there may be a right to bring a claim against a state.

Individual rights have evolved most in the context of human rights.  Human rights have been recognised by all states.  These categories of human and personal rights have evolved through the 20th Century, in particular since the Second World War.

The fact that human rights have been internationally recognized limits sovereignty.  States cannot avoid human rights obligations by laws or practices.

Individual Responsibility

Generally, the actions of individuals do not of themselves give rise to any international responsibility.  This may occur where they act on behalf of a state or their actions are attributed to the state.

Individuals are individually responsible under international law for breach of fundamental human rights, even when acting with the authority or even under orders from their state. Such crimes against international law may be pursued against individuals directly.  See the separate chapters on the international criminal court and human rights protection.

Claims by Individuals

Although individuals may have rights and responsibilities in international law, it does follow that they necessarily are entitled to bring international claims to assert these rights or immunities directly.  Most international institutions, such as the International Court of Justice, are not available to individuals but to states and international organizations only.

Traditionally, an individual could bring a claim under international law only by persuading its government to bring the claim on its behalf.  In this case, the state asserted his or her rights, by reason of nationality, although nationality will not necessarily be sufficient.

The courts of England have found that there may be A legitimate interest and expectation that a state will assert its international rights to protect its citizens diplomatically.  However, the courts are very reluctant to judicially review the action or inaction of a state in this regard.

Individual Claim by Treaty

Treaties may allow claims by nationals or other persons who are subject to their authority.

A number of human rights treaties allow individuals to bring claims of breach and violation of human rights. Such claims may be brought against states either by their own nationals or by third party nationals.  Remedies may range from compensatory remedies to orders to remedy the violation. States may not be the subject of claims unless that they have ratified the treaty or accepted that the relevant treaty allows the individual to bring a claim.

International claims may not be brought unless the individual has exhausted domestic remedies in the state.  This is part of a longstanding policy that matters should be resolved at the national level where possible, before the jurisdiction of international bodies may be invoked. States will generally amend their laws or practices if they are found or they agree that there has been a violation of or committed a violation of human rights.

Economic Institutions

A range of treaties in the latter half of the 20th century forward has provided for economic rights with mechanisms and tribunals for enforcement which may lead to claims.  The International Chamber of Commerce, and the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes provide mechanisms for bringing claims against a State through an international body which makes a decision which is to be legally binding and enforceable.

In the case of international economic law, the treaty may enable the individual to bring a claim either by ratifying the treaty or through a contract agreed by the state and the individual.  For example, some types of international dispute settlement bodies are under the World Trade Organization. Dispute settlement procedures may be initiated and brought by individual corporations affected by trade actions.

The European Union creates a new legal order with rights for individuals which are directly enforceable against states.  They may be asserted in domestic courts, with to the possibility of reference of issues to the European Court of Justice.

Non-State Beneficiaries

The general assumption is that states only have immunity from claims under international law.  Sometimes the immunities, such as those for high-level government officials, are personal and cannot be waived by the state.

The rights of self-determination recognized by international law may devolve on groups other than states.  International law has, in some cases, reluctantly recognized the practical assertion of power, sometimes by force of states to assert, such as when new states assert sovereignty and break away from an existing state.

The UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People 2007 has recognized the international human rights of indigenous people of equivalent human rights.


International legal personality implies that an entity has rights and responsibilities and may bring claims and enforce international law. It has become recognized that there may be other subjects which may depend on the needs of the international community and the requirements of international life.

The recognition of international organizations in international law has and continues to evolve. Their existence, rights and immunities are established by inter-state conventions.


Non-governmental organizations are an increasing feature of modern trade and circumstances.   They have assisted in the creation of important international rights; The  International Committee of the Red Cross has been made a significant role in and is acknowledged under the Geneva Convention.  It is to be consulted in relation to amendments to the key statutes.

Trade unions and international labour organizations were instrumental in the formation of the International Labour Organization.  The ILO comprises members, including trade unions and employer organizations.


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Draft Articles; The articles on this website are in draft form and are subject to further review for typographical errors and, in some cases, updating and correction. It is intended to include references to the sources of materials and acknowledgements in the final version. The content of articles with [EU] in the title and some of the articles in the section on Agriculture are a reproduction of or are based on European or Irish public sector information.

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