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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