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BBC Learning English – International Law

Explore the rights and duties of states and how they affect people across the planet.

About this digital activity

The BBC Learning English service strives to help learners understand and make sense of the nature and scope of many subjects - and Law is one of them. In a series of specially commissioned films, the BBC and The Open University provide introductions to a broad range of legal concepts, and ask some big questions along the way:

  • Who owns space?
  • Do you have a right to water?
  • Can the law stop islands sinking?

To find out more and see the videos for yourself, head to the BBC's Learning English hub.

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

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What is International Law?

How is law applied across states and nations, and how does it affect our lives? Read on to find out more.

Laws govern every aspect of our daily lives, they create our rights and obligations and set out the consequences of breaching them. These laws are known as the domestic laws of a State. Laws also govern the relationships between States setting out the commitments and obligations made between them or between States and international institutions such as the United Nations. These laws are collectively known as the "law of nations”, or public international law or just simply international law.

International law operates as  a unique international system. Within States domestic laws are created internally by elected or appointed representatives, whereas international law is the outcome of negotiations, often protracted, between government representatives. Those negotiations create treaties and conventions which become part of international law. The process of creating and enforcing international law relies on consent of the States.

The role played by international law to protect future generations, is now being discussed and debated in ways not seen before and by wider audiences

The growth of globalisation and increasing complexity of international relations has impacted the way in which international law is viewed, developed, and used. In recent decades it has begun to influence the domestic affairs of States in new ways whilst a collective effort is being made to meet global challenges, such as climate change and the protection and well-being of individuals. As States, and their citizens, take action to meet those global challenges new legal approaches are coming to the fore , from developing rights of nature, citizens holding States to account in domestic courts for their international commitments on climate change, multinational corporations’ commitments to social responsibility and the negotiation of new treaties to meet new challenges, for example, in space exploration. 

The role played by international law to protect future generations, is now being discussed and debated in ways not seen before and by wider audiences and the United Nations through its sustainable goals is providing a focus on making the planet a better place for all. How States respond to the global challenges facing us and how their commitments are reflected in international law remains to be seen. One thing is certain however, laws, whether domestic or international, will continue to play a role in setting out rights, obligations, commitments and responsibilities in what are increasingly complex and interlinked areas.

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Recognising Rights: Protecting the Planet and its People

How best to protect the planet's complex climate and ecosystems has been in debate for decades. As the urgency to act intensifies, what legal powers could states use to protect Earth's future?

Picture of a residential street, flooded. Rescue crews can be seen outside of a house


The discourse has taken place against a backdrop of extreme weather events, pollution of groundwater and rising sea levels, and have now resulted in a growing number of international treaties and conventions over the past 50 years intended to protect the environment.

These have covered, protection of the ozone layer, targets in relation to greenhouse gases, and conservation, and they share a common objective: to help address climate change. They all recognise that only through international cooperation can change be affected.

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The international community agrees that action is needed but there is disagreement over how to address, for example, reduction of greenhouse gases. The framework of treaties does however set aspirations. These include litigation, constitutional rights, and recognition of legal personhood. The legal frameworks emerging form a complex system of intertwined international, regional, state level and local laws.

A healthy environment is also now being recognised as being intrinsically linked to human rights.

Change has occurred since the UNFCCC Framework Convention on Climate Change 1992 which noted ‘change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind’. Since a UN resolution in 2009 April 22 has been recognised as International Mother Earth Day encouraging further discussions about the rights and protection of the planet and the approaches required.

A healthy environment is also now being recognised as being intrinsically linked to human rights. In 2016 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an advisory opinion concluding that the right to a healthy environment is a human right. However, debates as to the human rights of populations being displaced by extreme weather events and rising sea levels are ongoing and there have been no agreed solutions at an international level.

Since the beginning of this century rights have been given to nature in several states. The examples that follow are not exhaustive but have been widely reported :

  • In 2008 nature was granted rights under Articles 71-74 in the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador. Article 71 empowered “all persons, communities, peoples and nations [to] call upon public agencies to enforce the rights of nature”.  
  • In 2011 Bolivia also created laws giving rights to nature which included the right to life and to exist, the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration, the right to pure water and clean air and the right not to be polluted. 
  • In November 2016 the Constitutional Court of Colombia recognized the Atrato River, including its tributaries as having rights.  
  • In 2017 the Parliament of New Zealand granted the Whanganui River legal status as a person with the river’s interests being represented jointly by a member appointed by the local Maori community and one appointed by the Government.

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Whilst there has been discussion and a growth in international treaties the growing number of claims being made in the courts are also assisting change.  Climate cases are now being brought in every continent and are rapidly increasing, from around 880 in 2017 to 1500 in 2020. There have been notable successes. A 2017 decision in the Supreme Court in Nepal based on the constitution and commitments made under the Paris Agreement resulted in the government of Nepal passing two new environmental laws.

Federal districts, local authorities and municipalities have also played a role. In 2017 Mexico City adopted a new constitution which stated that the right to the preservation and protection of Nature would be guaranteed by the authorities of Mexico City. A number municipalities throughout the US have also recognized the rights of Nature through local laws, for example, Pittsburgh and Santa Monica. 

The development of international environmental laws helps highlight the complex interactions of ecosystems, the life they sustain, their intrinsic link to human rights and the challenges of global cooperation.

One thing remains clear; whilst the challenges affect us all there is no one solution. International environmental laws created by treaties are negotiated and help spell out intentions and aspirations but domestic laws and recourse to the courts are also helping provide solutions to the challenges that the international community and international environmental laws are seeking to resolve.  

The development of international environmental laws helps highlight the complex interactions of ecosystems, the life they sustain, their intrinsic link to human rights and the challenges of global cooperation. Whether their slow but steady evolution can now be accelerated to match the pace of change needed is a question that, for the moment, remains unanswered.

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Calling MNEs to Account

Many multinational enterprises hold more money - and therefore power - than entire countries. How can these corporate behemoths and their agendas be managed by international rules and regulations?

Whilst international courts, such as the International Court of Justice in the Hague (Netherlands) have jurisdiction to hear disputes between nation states, no international courts have the jurisdiction to hear disputes with multinational corporations (MNEs). Historically international law was unable to offer a solution when an MNE was involved and accessing justice in domestic courts could be a long and costly road with legal arguments over jurisdiction often overshadowing the dispute itself. 

In 2014, following a UN Human Rights Council resolution, an intergovernmental working group was established to consider the issue of MNEs further. The group issued a draft Treaty which would require nation states to implement national laws binding MNEs and which outline the rights, protection, and remedies for victims.

The 2020 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark exposed ongoing systemic weaknesses and abusive practices. The human rights disclosures of 230 corporations had been assessed and the report noted that some progress had been made but over half of the corporations were unable to prove that they were protecting human rights in line with UN requirements. 

Supply chains were identified as a major weakness and there was a disconnect between human rights and environmental issues. Progress at an international level is slow but inroads are being made.

Recent Years

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There is an imbalance of power between MNEs, workers and local communities but litigation is increasingly being used as a strategic tool to fight corporate impunity. Litigation which in turn helps develop new legal standards through caselaw. However, this relies on access to courts and legal representation.

In recent years, there are indications of movement at domestic level to call MNEs to account for the acts of their subsidiaries and contractors in their supply chains. For example, the EU and several states have passed due diligence laws which mean that the years spent in costly litigation over the question of jurisdiction can now be avoided. Some jurisdictions, notably the Netherlands, France, Canada, and UK, have allowed litigation against parent MNEs calling to account the actions of their subsidiaries in Africa and Asia.

The Future of MNEs

Progress has and is being made in holding MNEs to account for their actions, particularly where those involve human rights and environmental abuses.

Post-pandemic there are calls for the voluntary human rights diligence undertaken by MNEs as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) to become mandatory. The United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development by 2030 includes several goals relevant to MNEs including sustainable production, decent work, economic growth, sustainable industrialisation, and innovation. All build on an assumption of continuous improvement in the approach taken by MNEs to their CSR. Whether this can be delivered in time for 2030 remains to be seen but progress has and is being made in holding MNEs to account for their actions, particularly where those involve human rights and environmental abuses.

The Human Right to Water

Water is a commodity that, in a country like the UK, is rarely something we're short of or struggle to access. But this isn't the case for everyone across the world, especially among less developed, poorer nations.

As the planet warms and international conflicts persist, water is fast becoming an asset that's increasingly valued and more highly coveted than ever. So how does international law protect the resource, and the interests of those who need it?

A photo of an outdoor tap


Some societies' access to fresh drinking water is taken for granted, while others walk or queue for hours.

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A Human Right

A right to water was not included in the original United Nations Declarations of Human Rights until a formal recognition in 2010 (Resolution 64/292).

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Respect, Protect and Fulfil

States who are a party to UN Treaties have a duty to ‘Respect, Protect and Fulfil’ people's rights to water and sanitation.

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A precious resource

The importance of water is found in the race to find new sources on earth, or even evidence of it in space.

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Out of reach

However, on earth, access to water remains a challenge for many. Fresh water covers 2.5% of the earth’s surface but only 0.5% is accessible.

A photograph of a manmade dam


Access to water is also a means by which control can be exercised whether by states, by corporations or by individuals.

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Sustainable Development Goals

The ‘availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ is goal number six of the UN's list of Sustainable Development Goals.

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Protected rights

It follows the no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, a quality education and gender equality goals, all goals which it helps underpin.

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Seeking equity

Six targets focus on access to drinking water and sanitation, ecosystems, international cooperation, water resources management and water scarcity.

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Under threat

No one system of law can ensure access, protect, and provide remedies for the human right to water, because it crosses local and national boundaries.

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Crossing boundaries

What happens in one geographical area, for example upstream in a river, impacts on another, for example at the mouth of the river.

A photo of ripples taken just after something broke water's surface


It's complex as the human right is for access to clean water - not FREE access, and building the infrastructure to provide it can be very costly.

Should Law Define Space?

As humanity's excursions off-planet become even more ambitious - not to mention commonplace - what are the rules by which we all need to live? Who sets them? And how are they set to change? Take a look at the past, present and history of space law, right here.

A photograph taken from a distance of a space rocket launching into the sky.

Humanity in Space

Humanity’s first space explorer, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin, orbited around the globe on 12 April 1961. Since then, more than 550 people have blasted into space. A tenth of those have been women and a total of 12 men have walked on the moon. However, no one has been back to the moon since 1972 as international focus moved towards building a permanently staffed space station.  Historic international legal agreements enabled this to be achieved and the International Space Station (The ISS) has been permanently staffed since 2000.

A photograph of the International Space Station

The International Space Station

The ISS is a significant collaboration between five space agencies (Nasa, Roscosmos, Japan’s Jaxa, the pan-European agency ESA and the Canadian Space Agency). The space station itself was assembled over a period of 13 years from 1998, as capsules were slowly added, like Lego. It has been staffed by astronauts drawn from a wide range of states. These decisions have been made between states, reflecting the origins of the race to be the first in space and beyond.

A photograph of the US flag on the surface of the moon

The Big Players

States which once led the race to put a person into space and on the moon are now giving way to new participants. In 2003, China became the third country to put a person into orbit and India hopes to do so in 2022. Changes as to who funds and explores space are also taking place. These are being driven by private companies and individuals who see opportunities for expansion and new ventures. The focus is turning from competition between states to be the first in space or land on a planet to space travel, space tourism and mining. 

A close-up picture of an astronaut's helmet

Enter Space Law

Space law has been developed by international treaties and through negotiations between states. The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Mood and Other Celestial Bodies was signed simultaneously in Moscow, London, and Washington on January 27, 1967. As the first space treaty, its most significant feature is that it declares outer space “the province of mankind”. This means that the exploration and use of space should benefit all states. It should be without discrimination with free access to planets and other celestial bodies. Ratified at the height of the Cold War between the US and USSR the treaty sought to ensure that outer space would be used for peaceful purposes. In also sought to ensure that there would be no contamination of its pristine environment making states liable for any damage that results from their space activities. At the time it was signed the possibility of private companies and individuals going to space belonged to the realms of science fiction.

The Borders of Space

Where air space ends and outer space begins has been debated since the 1950s. One proposal is that the Outer Space Zone - the area above 120km - should be subject to Space Law. Another theoretical line to separate the fields of aeronautics and astronautics was set at 100km, and proposed by Theodore von Kármán in the 1960s. This line has been recognised by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Australia has also adopted this as the jurisdictional limit of its national air space.

Where space begins and ends is important as it has implications for the modern space race, and private entities seeking to travel into space.  It determines the laws that govern them, liability, and permissions to launch. Important as growing private investment sees companies working alongside government agencies to provide, for example, launch facilities. Costly technological developments are governed by a complex web of laws and regulations. However, being able to market an opportunity to become an ‘astronaut’ creates valuable and sought-after opportunities. 

A futuristic impression of an astronaut walking past an artificial colony on another planet

The Modern Space Race

The most recent race in space saw, in early 2021, within weeks of each other, three commercial suborbital flight raising debates whether space-keen billionaires, such as Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk can be called astronauts. Whether they should continues to be debated.  The term ‘outer space’, like several other basic notions of space law (‘outer space activity’, ‘space flight’, ‘space object’), although frequently used in space agreements and other space law instruments, have yet to be defined by them. Perhaps another commonly used word, astronaut, will be redefined as space becomes a focus for commercial travel. 


Meet the academic contributors

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Carol HowellsSenior Lecturer in LawVIEW FULL PROFILE
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Carol HowellsSenior Lecturer in Law

Carol Howells is a member of the Open University Law School and has written a wide range of courses, including materials for OpenLearn, the LLB, BABs, LLM degrees, Access Courses and Executive Education. Her research interests include public engagement with law and marginalised communities and their access to justice.

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Edwin Parks Senior Lecturer in LawVIEW FULL PROFILE
A silhouette of someone whose picture we don't have on file
Edwin Parks Senior Lecturer in Law

Edwin Parks is a Senior Lecturer in Law at The Open University and has written a wide range of courses, including materials for OpenLearn, the OU’s LLB and Executive Education. He is an international practitioner and experienced OU tutor.

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