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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, INTERNATIONAL STUDIES ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 March 2019

Summary and Keywords

International law is generally defined as a body of rules that govern relations between states—and, in some cases, between other legally recognized international actors. This includes written international agreements such as treaties and memoranda of understanding. The question that arises is whether norms and customs are also part of international law, when not codified in written form. Given the absence of an overarching authority to enforce international law, some have argued that international law is not really law at all. However, others contend that the sources of enforcement simply reside elsewhere, such as domestic institutions, reputation, or reciprocity. Two alternate perspectives on how enforcement can enhance compliance share a common belief that enforcement can in some circumstances be problematic for the effectiveness of international law. The first maintains that states abide by international law for reasons other than expectations of enforcement—for example, because of the impact of ideas and norms, and/or concerns about fairness and legitimacy. The second claims that enforcement can be problematic in that it may deter states from participating in international agreements with which they anticipate difficulty complying. Despite the important advances that have taken place in the compliance literature, there are still some interesting areas that need to be addressed in future research; for example, how less formal institutions such as customary international law shape state practice; or how nongovernmental organizations affect compliance.

Keywords: international law, compliance, enforcement, fairness, domestic institutions, reputation, reciprocity, legitimacy, international agreements, effectiveness

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