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  • Dhruv Prashar

The Role of the United Nations in Shaping Public International Law

By : Dhruv Prashar, LL.B, Lovely Professional University

The United Nations (UN) stands as a pivotal organization in the arena of international relations and public international law. Since its inception in 1945, following the devastation of World War II, the UN has steadily grown into its role as a guardian of world peace and a promoter of global cooperation in public international law. This blog delves into the multifaceted contributions of the UN to international law, exploring its mechanisms, achievements, and ongoing challenges.


Foundational Principles of the UN and International Law


The United Nations was established with the primary aim to prevent future global conflicts and to foster international cooperation. The Charter of the United Nations, its founding document, enshrines the principles of sovereignty, peace and security, and human rights. These principles form the bedrock of the public international law that the UN upholds and develops.


 Institutional Framework


The UN consists of various organs, each playing a critical role in the maintenance and development of public international law:


1. The General Assembly - Often referred to as a global town hall, the General Assembly consists of all member states and serves as a platform for deliberation on the world’s most pressing issues, including legal questions. It also adopts treaties and guides the norms of international law.


2. The Security Council - Primarily responsible for maintaining international peace and security, the Security Council can also influence international law by creating ad hoc tribunals or mandating peacekeeping operations that enforce or redefine the application of legal norms.


3. The International Court of Justice (ICJ)- Located in The Hague, Netherlands, the ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the UN. It adjudicates disputes between states and gives advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized UN organs and specialized agencies.


4. The Secretariat - Headed by the Secretary-General, the Secretariat carries out the substantive and administrative work of the UN. It also plays an integral role in the mediation of conflicts and the coordination of humanitarian assistance, operating within the framework of international law.


 Key Contributions to Public International Law


 1. Development of International Treaties and Conventions

The UN has been instrumental in formulating key treaties that have shaped substantial areas of international law. Noteworthy among these are:

   - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)- This document has been pivotal in advancing human rights protections globally.

   - The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols- Central to international humanitarian law, these treaties outline legal standards for humanitarian treatment during war.

   - The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) - This treaty governs maritime issues and marine resources, balancing territorial claims and environmental considerations.


 2. Promoting International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

Through its various programs and specialized agencies like the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN actively promotes and enforces human rights principles and humanitarian law across the globe.


 3. Environmental Law

The UN’s role extends into environmental preservation and sustainable use of resources. Landmark summits organized under its banner, such as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the more recent United Nations Climate Change conferences, have been crucial in developing international environmental agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.



 Challenges and Criticism


Despite its achievements, the UN faces numerous challenges. Criticism includes accusations of political bias, inefficiency, and the disproportionate influence of powerful countries, especially in the Security Council. The complexity of international relations today, marked by transnational issues and non-state actors, strains the traditional mechanisms through which the UN operates.


The Future of the United Nations and International Law


As we move further into the 21st century, the United Nations' role in developing and enforcing international law appears to be increasingly crucial amidst global challenges such as climate change, cyber warfare, and international terrorism. The need for reform and adaptation remains prominent, to ensure that the UN can effectively respond to new legal and geopolitical challenges.


Ultimately, the United Nations remains a cornerstone institution in the realm of public international law. Its ongoing mission to advocate for peace, protect human rights, and enforce legal standards continues to shape our world, guided by the principles enshrined in its Charter and the evolving needs of the international community. In continuing to support and reform such an institution, states and individuals alike contribute to a legacy of global cooperation and legal harmony.

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