International law is a set of rules that are generally regarded as binding by countries around the world, especially in their relations with one another. However, it is a difficult concept to define.

Let’s try by first taking a look at one of the most well-known definitions of international law – found in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice. This statute defines international law as,

“(a) international conventions whether general or particular, establishing rules expressly recognized by the contesting states;

(b) international customs as evidence of a general practice accepted by law;

(c) the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations; and

(d) judicial decisions and the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the various nations, as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law.”[1]

As you can probably see from this definition, it is a broad concept that has meant different things to different countries.

The term “international conventions” includes any agreements between states (countries) that are intended by the parties (the different countries involved) to create legal relations. One way that these legal relations can be expressed is through a treaty – a written agreement.[2]

Treaties may be multilateral – between 3 or more countries or bilateral – between 2 countries.

Multilateral treaties 

The United Nations (the “UN”) is an international organization founded in 1945 and currently made up of 193 Member States. It uses international law as a means to “take action on the issues confronting humanity in the 21st century, such as peace and security, climate change, sustainable development, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, humanitarian and health emergencies, gender equality, governance, food production, and more.”[3] Since its inception, the UN has played a major role in the formation of international law.

A UN Convention is an international agreement between countries to uphold a certain standard. There are a number of UN Conventions that set the standard for environmental law around the world. Some of these include:

This UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is discussed in more depth in our section on Climate Change here.
For a full list of UN Conventions, check out this link.

UN Conventions must be incorporated into an individual country’s own law (called domestic law) to become enforceable. To do this, each country has their own method of turning UN Conventions into law.

For example, once Canada agrees to a UN Convention, a few steps still need to be taken before it becomes law – either the Canadian Parliament or the Provincial Legislatures must legislate the treaty into domestic law. This could mean re-writing laws that are already in force or creating new ones.

Once the treaty is signed and ratified, Canada must comply with it and must ensure that Canadian domestic law does not conflict with international law. Notably, “the implementation of a treaty must respect the distribution of legislative powers as defined by the Constitution” .

Check out our section on Constitutional Law here.

Bilateral Treaties 

Canada has joined forces with different countries around the world by establishing bilateral treaties to deal with an issue or concern the two countries have in common.

See for example the Canada-United Kingdom collaboration on improving weather and environmental services [7] which focuses on improving weather prediction in order to minimize destruction from natural disasters.

Or the Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States on Air Quality [8] which focuses on emissions reductions to improve air quality. These are only two examples of the dozens of specific bilateral environmental agreements that Canada has made with other countries.

<< Environmental Law in YOUR life

The Canadian Constitution >>

[1] Statute of the International Court of Justice, Can TS 7 (1945) s 38.

[2] Nigel Bankes, “International Wildlife Law”, Canadian Wildlife Law Project Paper # 1 (February 2006) at 3 online:

[3] United Nations, “About the UN: Overview” (2017) online:

[4] Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, 22 March 1985, 1513 UNTS 323; 26 ILM 1529 (1987).

[5] Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, 1996 October 6, 1936 UNTS 269; 31 ILM 1312 (1992).

[6] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 9 May 1992, 1771 UNTS 107, art 1, 31 ILM 849 (entered into force 21 March 1994).

[7] Memorandum of Understanding between the United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office and the Department of the Environment of Canada for Collaboration on Weather, Atmospheric, Hydrologic and Oceanographic Research and Development and Implementation of Related Assimilation and Prediction Systems for the Enhancement of National Safety and Economic Prosperity, United Kingdom and Canada, 6 May 2016.

[8] Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States on Air Quality, United States and Canada, 13 March 1991.





Fundamentals of Environmental Law

Lesson Plan: Fundamentals of Environmental Law
Lesson Plan: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Lesson Plan: Tragedy of the Commons
Lesson Plan: Climate Litigation

Curriculum Connections


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