top of page

United Nations and the Law 101: A Chronological History


The United Nations remains one of the most well-known pillars of international relations, dominating many conceptions of what exactly the international system consists of. Despite this, the exact concepts present within the United Nations legal framework can often appear nebulous and daunting, consisting of a plethora of interworking parts and countless moving actors. As a result, this 101 series aims to simplify the concept of the United Nations and its connection to international law. It first begins with a chronological history of how international law, specifically within the context of the United Nations, was formed and eventually adopted by states in the system. The series also includes a brief explanation of the main lawmaking bodies of the United Nations, along with methods of how to interpret and put the law into practice. By analyzing enforcement mechanisms for states in the system, the 101 series ends with a case review of the most well-known cases within the United Nations canon and a hypothetical look into the future as to the relevancy of UN law. It is the aim of this series to provide the reader with a foundation from which many dimensions of international law can be better understood, along with a critical lens to analyze many facets of the international system within this context of the United Nations' deep connection to the law. United Nations and the Law 101 is therefore divided into six chapters: 1. United Nations and the Law 101: A Chronological History

2. United Nations and the Law 101: The Process of Lawmaking

3. United Nations and the Law 101: Interpreting The Law

4. United Nations and the Law 101: Enforcement Mechanisms

5. United Nations and the Law 101: Case Review

6. United Nations and the Law 101: Future Implications

United Nations and the Law 101: A Chronological History

Prior to the early modern period, the international sphere looked considerably more anarchic than it does today. Bloody inter and intra-state conflicts dominated Europe; the beginnings of the colonial project were starting to form with the expansion of the Portuguese and Spanish empires outside of Europe and along the coastlines of Africa and interiors of Latin America; and many modern states we conceptualize as dominant of our own system did not exist in their current form, such as the city-states of Italy. The first article in this 101 series, therefore, aims to briefly describe the inception of the international system and the legal norms it created. Specifically, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) as the preeminent origin of international relations is analyzed for its introduction of key norms present within the system today, such as the concepts of state sovereignty, interstate mediation, and liberal diplomacy (Patton, 2019). This treaty would then serve as the foundation for further events within global history which helped to solidify international law in canon, such as the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907; the League of Nations; and the inception of the United Nations. A wealth of treaties and institutions, each interacting with and building upon each others’ precedent, converge together to form the modern conception of international law undergirding the existence of the United Nations. Therefore, it is imperative to analyze how the specific norms created during the Peace of Westphalia, namely the concept of state sovereignty and the inception of interstate diplomacy, continue to influence legal projects throughout history up to the modern incarnation of the International Court of Justice.

Allegory of the Peace of Westphalia, Jordaens, 1654.

The Treaty of Westphalia

Liberal international relations scholars such as Moravcsik often conceptualize the Treaty of Westphalia as the emerging point for modern international law (Gross, 1948). Prior to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 and the Congress of Westphalia the first congress of its kind in Europe and the setting in which states enacted the Treaty war was the predominant method of diplomatic solution utilized by states. It served as the method in which states solved conflicts, legitimized their authority, and gathered resources. Realist thought, in which the strong often showed its might over the weak, prevailed among leading scholars and rulers of the time as is evidenced in works such as Machiavelli’s The Prince. In it, Machiavelli provides ample suggestions to his audience regarding how to effectively rule a territory, providing an air of fear to the populace in an effort to maintain power: "for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails" (Machiavelli, 1532). However, the Congress of Westphalia marked a shift in both how states interacted with one another and how they perceived each other. Instead of perceiving the other as an adversary to conquer in battle, the official recognition of interstate diplomacy and negotiation as a legitimate method of discourse was achieved (Patton, 2019). With the waning of the Holy Roman Empire's predominance over the region, provincial rulers obtained the recognition as independent sovereign states along with the recognition of Calvinism as a legitimate mode of religious worship, leading to a stark shift in the manner in which states perceived each other as newly independent entities. Specifically, the critical notion of sovereignty would emerge, thereby setting the foundation for international relations and its connection to the legal sphere for centuries to come.

Although sovereignty connotes a variety of images for the international relations scholar, a few specific definitions are the most pertinent for this discussion on its first emergence in the seventeenth century. Specifically, the state’s ability to make authoritative decisions within the geographic limits of its own territory is vital: international relations scholar Thomson defines sovereignty with actions such as levying taxes, declaring war, and setting domestic policy, the state thereby has control of what occurs within it (1995) As such, the cognitive perception of outside states shifted from an adversarial enemy to those who control the domestic actions of their own space. In this manner, negotiation and diplomacy were more easily conceptualized as rational decisions on the part of states. Furthermore, the rationalization of interstate diplomacy as a normalized action within the international system would pave the way for the emergence of legal relations between states in the centuries to come.

Members of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, 1899.

The Emergence of the Hague Conventions and League of Nations

Two and a half centuries after the Peace of Westphalia marked a watershed moment in the institutionalization of international relations, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 marked the first time a multilateral treaty was signed with the specific purpose of specifying the art of international warfare. Specifically, the members of the conference negotiated over customs in land warfare, such as disarmament and the presence of war crimes (Convention IV, n.d.). These conventions would become the precursor of the International Court of Justice, the principal legal organ of the United Nations whom would be established four decades later. With the express purpose of eliminating war as a necessary portion of the international process, many states argued for the establishment of a permanent institution in the form of a legally binding international court to settle interstate disputes (Ibid.). Though this idea was in fact rejected as the major powers were found to be incapable of agreeing on a system of how to assign permanent judges to the institution, the principal concept of an international judicial system to settle disputes between states would be repurposed later into the International Court of Justice (Eyffinger, 2007).

As the First World War of 1914-1918 proved to the world just how devastating modern warfare had the potential to be, many states entered the newly-formed League of Nations with the intention of promoting peace and ensuring such bloodshed would “never again” happen. As such, the blueprints of the International Court of Justice would continue to develop, as the Permanent Court of International Justice was formally established as a method of giving advisory opinions to states who submitted disputes (History, n.d.). World War Two witnessed the dissolution of the Permanent Court of International Justice and the League of Nations as widespread nationalism and isolationism marked the international system. The following portion of this article, therefore, details the conferences and deliberations undertaken to arrive at the International Court of Justice, our most modern inception of international law deeply imbedded within the framework of the United Nations.

United States delegate signs the United Nations charter, 1945.

The San Francisco Conference

In 1945 San Francisco, delegates from fifty states convened to establish both the Charter of the United Nations and the Statute which governs the International Court of Justice (The San Francisco Conference, n.d.). It would be here where the delegates would divide into four separate committees, each dedicated to their own policies and procedures. While some delegates were dedicated to specific aspects of the Charter such as its preamble, others were delegated to forming the Security Council and still others to the International Court of Justice (Ibid.). Informal consultations were held as various delegations met to discuss the specifics of both the still-forming United Nations and its judicial organ. It would be at this conference that the United Nations as it exists today would be formed, influenced by the legal and political landscape of its time.


Providing a brief chronological timeline of the various norms and conferences which influenced the modern international law system allows for one to begin to infer continuities across time. Specifically, the Treaty of Westphalia exemplifies how the concept of state sovereignty has dominated both the rhetoric in international relations and its legal dimension over centuries. This concept of sovereignty influenced the decision-making process in both the Hague Conventions and the formation of the League of Nations, as states continued to conceptualize both themselves and others as part of a grander international system. As such, the following articles in this 101 series will build upon the fundamental concepts discussed here in an effort to simplify the often nebulous world of applying the law to the United Nations system.

Bibliographical References

Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907. International Committee of the Red Cross. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Eyffinger, A. (2007). A Highly Critical Moment: Role and Record of the 1907 Hague Peace Conference. Netherlands International Law Review, 54(2), 197-228. doi:10.1017/S0165070X07001970

Gross, L. (1948). The peace of Westphalia, 1648–1948. American Journal of International Law, 42(1), 20-41. History. International Court of Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved from Machiavelli, N. (1532). The Prince. The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli. Retrieved from

Patton, S. (2019). The Peace of Westphalia and Its Effects on International Relations, Diplomacy, and Foreign Policy. The Histories, 10(1), 5. The San Francisco Conference. (n.d). United Nations. Retrieved from Thomson, J. E. (1995). State Sovereignty in International Relations: Bridging the Gap between Theory and Empirical Research. International Studies Quarterly, 39(2), 213–233.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Dana Kit

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page