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Europe > Ireland > Public International Law > General > Article > Are UN Resolutions International Law?

Article: Are UN Resolutions International Law?

International Law can be defined as ’the body of law that governs the legal relations between or among states or nations’1. The main sources of International Law are; Treaties, Judicial Decisions, and Customs or General Principles. Two of the main organs of the UN who have an influence on International Law are a deliberative body known as the ‘General Assembly’, and the executive body of the UN known as the ‘Security Council’.

The General Assembly is composed of representatives from all of the 193 member states. As a deliberative body, they discuss matters, mainly relating to budgetary issues, and then make recommendations on these issues. It is widely established that General Assembly determinations ‘do not impose themselves upon the Court’2. Byrne & McCutcheon notes that the General Assembly ‘has no power to compel action by any government, but its recommendations carry political weight’3.Whilst these recommendations are not binding on UN members, they can quite often lead to the development of International Law. A good example of this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was a resolution adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. As a resolution of the General Assembly, this declaration was not binding on any of the UN members; however the declaration was accepted over time as custom, and thus became International Law.

Similarly, in the case of Nicaragua v United States of America4, the General Assembly’s resolution 20/2131 (The Declaration of the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty), whilst not binding upon adoption by the General Assembly, was found to have been accepted as customary international law over time. With this in mind, resolutions of the General Assembly cannot be considered to be direct sources of International Law. That being said, the General Assembly does hold a key role in the development of international law, and through its resolutions can lead indirectly to the introduction of new customary International Law.

The Security Council has 15 members, five of which are permanent. The role of The Security Council is to ensure that peace and security is maintained. Decisions and recommendations of The Security Council tend to carry a lot of weight in comparison to The General Assembly, and are also thought to be more serious due to their central role in maintaining peace and security. According to Byrne & McCutcheon, ‘resolutions of The Security Council made under Chapter VII are binding on all states’5.

Chapter VII refers to The Security Council’s authority in cases where there are ‘threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression’6. Evidence of The Security Council exercising this authority is present in the case of Bosphorous v Ireland7, in which sanctions were put in place by The Security Council against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in order to reinstate peace and security. The Council adopted resolution 820 (1993), leading to the creation of EC regulations which called for the impounding of any Yugoslavian aircraft by member states. When Irish authorities complied with this resolution, the European Court of Human Rights accepted that Ireland was adhering to International Law. In this case, a Security Council resolution led to the creation of binding international law.

Another notable case involving the Security Council is the Lockerbiecase. In this case, the Security Council adopted resolution 748 which imposed economic sanctions on Libya in order to bring about their cooperation in the case. The International Court of Justice showed the importance of the Security Council’s resolution when they referred to the ‘validity and binding force of resolution 748’9.This resolution resulted in the implementation of economic sanctions on Libya. These sanctions included a worldwide ban on air travel, as well as a ban on arms sales, resulting in the loss of billions for Libya. The adherence to this resolution by other nations who refused to engage with Libya goes to show the power and influence that Security Council resolutions have.

To conclude, there is no definitive answer as to whether UN resolutions in general are international law. Resolutions passed by the General Assembly are viewed much differently to resolutions passed by the Security Council. In the case of the General Assembly, recommendations and resolutions carry political weight and can greatly influence the creation and development of international law as can be seen in the Nicaragua case. However on their own, General Assembly resolutions are not binding and hold no power to compel governments to take specific action. In essence, resolutions of the General Assembly are sources of soft law.

In contrast to the power of the General Assembly, the Security Council passes resolutions which are deemed to be more serious and are more influential on nations. This is illustrated well in the Bosphorous case in relation to the impounding of Yugoslavian aircrafts. Security Council resolutions in this case were deemed to be of high importance and in order for the Council to fulfil their role in maintaining both peace and security, and were also deemed to be legally binding.

1.The Free Dictionary by Farlex
2.Marko Divak Oberg, ‘The legal effects of resolutions of the UN Security Council and General Assembly in the jurisprudence of the ICJ’ [2005]
3.Raymond Byrne and Paul McCutcheon, Byrne & McCutcheon on the Irish Legal System (5th edition, Bloomsbury Professional 2009) 800
4.Nicaragua v United States [1986] ICJ 14
5. Raymond Byrne and Paul McCutcheon, Byrne & McCutcheon on the Irish Legal System (5th edition, Bloomsbury Professional 2009) 801
6. UN ‘Charter of the United Nations’, <>, accessed 21st of March 2014
7. Bosphorous v Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications [1997] 2 IR 1
8. Libya v United Kingdom [1992] I.C.J Rep 14
9. Michael Plachta. ‘’The Lockerbie Case: The Role of the Security Council in Enforcing the Principle of Aut Dedere Aut Judicare’’ [2001]

Last Update: 2015-May-24 Jamie Murphy - Business & Law Student University College Dublin
The contents of this page do not constitute legal advice or create an attorney- client relationship with the contributor. Do not apply anything you read here without contacting a professional.
Author: Jamie Murphy
Law Firm: Business & Law Student University College Dublin