How to introduce a new term to the jargon of international law: “world law” as example

In a recent Dutch article on world law, the term (“wereldrecht” in Dutch) was defined as “a collection of norms of public international law, based on global values, accepted and recognized by the international community as a whole, compliance with which is seen as a legal interest of the same community.”

So is this what the term “world law” means? There is lots of competition. Earlier examples where the same term was introduced give an entirely different meaning to it. For example, in a most interesting article, with the beautiful title “The Dawn of World Law” (“De dageraad van het wereldrecht”, see p. 486), published in 1899 (!!), we read that “the idea of ‘world law’ is most fully realized when all different local laws are replaced by one uniform law.” Interestingly, the article is referring to private international law, and the need to harmonize national private law, or come up with universally applicable rules of private international law, i.e. world law. It thus has little to do with the law governing relations between States, i.e. public international law.

 A few years later (in 1911), Bridgman introduced the term “world law” as “the official declaration of the will of the world”, and he introduced a set of international treaties that together constituted this will of the world. His book was entitled The First Book of World Law: a Compilation of the International Conventions to Which the Principal Nations Are Signatory, with a Survey of Their Significance (Boston: Ginn & Company 1911). This title already explains his entire theory: world law is thus a compilation of the international conventions to which the principal States are signatory. Bridgman focused on the number of signatures, not on the substantive character of the norms of world law (e.g. their relationship with global values).

The most famous post-war elaboration of the concept of “world law” is undoubtedly the book by Grenville Clark and Louis Sohn, entitled World Peace through World Law. Clark and Sohn defined world law as “law that applies equally to all peoples and all individuals in the world.” They referred to the Charter of the United Nations.

Let’s refer to one last attempt to claim the same term. Angelika Emmerich-Fritsche published a book in 2007 of more than 1000 pages, entitled Vom Völkerrecht zum Weltrecht (from international law to world law). Emmerich-Fritsche defined world law as ‘Weltbürgerrecht’ (world citizen law). This concept referred to relationships between all individuals in this world, instead of relations between States. However, she did not use it as a term of private international law, but rather as the beginning of a new kind of international law, with a much less exclusive role for States.

World Law is a great term, which must find a place in the jargon of international legal studies. But who decides what it means?

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About Otto Spijkers

Otto Spijkers is Professor of International Law at the China Institute of Boundary and Ocean Studies (CIBOS), Wuhan University. Previously, he was a lecturer of Public International Law at Utrecht University, Senior Research Associate with the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea (NILOS), and researcher with the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law (UCWOSL). He is also a member of the Committee on the Role of International Law in Sustainable Natural Resource Management for Development of the International Law Association. He was a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta, the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, Xiamen University’s China International Water Law Programme (China), the China Institute for Boundary and Ocean Studies of Wuhan University (China), the Law School of the East China University of Political Science and Law (ECUPL) in Shanghai (China), the Università degli Studi di Salerno (Italy), and the Association pour la promotion des droits de l'homme en Afrique centrale (APDHAC) of the Université Catholique d’Afrique Centrale (Yaoundé, Cameroon). Previously, he was a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at the University of Leiden. His doctoral dissertation, entitled The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law, was published with Intersentia in 2011. He worked as public services coordinator at the Peace Palace Library, as international consultant and coordinator for the United Nations International Law Fellowship Programme, as intern for the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and as intern for the Office of Legal Affairs of United Nations Headquarters. Otto Spijkers is editor and author of the Invisible College Blog, the blog of the School of Human Rights Research. Otto Spijkers studied the basics of international relations at the University of Sussex. He then studied international law at the University of Amsterdam, New York University School of Law (exchange student), and the Hague Academy of International Law (2009 session). He studied philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Malta (exchange). He obtained a Diplôme approfondi de langue française.

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