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Foreign, Comparative & International Law

General Principles

General Principles

What are general principles?

What are General Principles?

General principles are a source of international law.  See Art. 38, ¶ 1 (c)  Statute of the International Court of Justice. 

  • They differ from customary international law in that they are derived from the "national laws of legal systems of the world."  Art. 21 ¶ 1 (c) of the  Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
  • Principles also "may either refer to metalegal principles—that is principles generated in a philosophical or ethical discourse and introduced from there into a legal normative system.
  • Or it may refer to principles inherent in or developed from a particular body of law or law in general."  Rüdiger Wolfrum, General International Law (Principles, Rules, and Standards), Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (2010, citations omitted).  Principles are primarily used by courts as basis for interpretation.

"The basic notion is that a general principle of international law is some proposition of law so fundamental that it will be found in virtually every legal system.  When treaties and customary international law fail to offer a needed international rule, a search may be launched in comparative law to discover if national legal systems use a common legal principle.  If such a common legal principle is found, then it is presumed that a comparable principle should be attributed to fill the gap in international law."

Mark W. Janis, An Introduction to international Law 55 (4th ed. 2003).

Examples of general principles of law: laches, good faith, res judicata, and the impartiality of judges.  International tribunals use these principles when they cannot find authority in other sources. 


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