The Binding Force of Nascent Norms of International Law

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Demonstrating that a developing norm is not yet well established in international law is frequently thought to show that states are not bound by the norm as law. More precisely, showing that a purported international legal norm has only limited support from well-established international legal sources is normally seen as sufficient to rebut an obligation on the part of subjects to comply with the norm in virtue of its legal status. I contend that this view is mistaken. Nascent norms of international law (e.g., crystallizing norms of customary law) can be binding in much the same way as better-established doctrine. This point becomes perspicuous, I argue, once we get a clear sense of the plausible options for grounding the moral authority of international law generally. This result is interesting in its own right, but it also reveals two other features of the character of state responsibility under international law. First, the distinction between legislation and compliance is less pronounced compared to domestic law. Consequently, the virtues of good governance will frequently be pertinent to determining the content of states’ obligations under international law. Second, normally more powerful and influential agents will be more strongly bound by international law than other subjects. This is an attractive result, addressing a concern that motivates many international lawyers to view international law as absolutely binding. An absolutist view international legal authority is unnecessary for showing that the most powerful and dangerous states are strongly bound by the terms of much existing law.
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Archival date: 2015-11-21
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