Core Legal Principles of the Classic, Contemporary, and Twenty-first Century

Core Legal Principles of the Classic, Contemporary, and Twenty-first Century

 By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20150126

Jeffrey Morton has categorized the core legal principles into three systems and eras (Classic 1648-1945, Contemporary 1945-1999, and Twenty-first century 1999-present) and tracked their evolution. Under the classic system, legal positivism or the need to remove god and nature from the legal decision making process was paramount. Perceived as more significant was the diplomatic negotiations of states leading to binding agreements and customs. This principle did not evolve much and carried over to the contemporary and twenty-first century. Nevertheless, some principles shed their significance across time, others evolved toward re-contextualization, and some gave birth to new principles.

Other core principles under the classic system was state system, intervention, and neutrality. (Silverburg 2011). State supremacy was anchored in the exaltation of states above all other sources of authority. State sovereignty ensured independence of action, albeit, “…the principle of pacta sunt servanda dictates that treaties signed must be respected” (Silverburg 2011, 565). In regards to intervention, international law intended to provide an objective means to reduce the frequency of armed conflict and regulate hostile and aggressive state actors. Essentially, however, states had few if any restrictions from engaging in armed conflict. When armed conflicts did occur, non-participating states could claim neutrality to avoid territorial invasion considering they did not aid or abet belligerents (Silverburg 2011).

The core principles of legal positivism carried over to the contemporary era, but the state system evolved to include non-state actors in the international legal equation and ushered in the principle of human rights (Silverburg 2011). The principle ofnon-intervention marked an evolution from nearly no restrictions on states’ ability to wage war to an attempt to limit the legal justifications to self-defense, collective self-defense, and Security Council Authorizations. Accordingly, the principle of neutrality lost significance as most armed conflicts became viewed as opposing international peace. Additionally, there was also an attempt made to limit legitimate economic strategies to free trade and liberal economic capitalist philosophy. During this era, specifically post-World War II, the United States established human rights as a core principle of international law (Silverburg 2011).

In the twenty-first century, the only significant change to the core legal principles was to how intervention was contextualized. After 1945, the non-intervention principle lost its relevance as several interventions by major powers (e.g. U.S. invasion in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, former Yugoslavia, and Iraq) proved interventions would inherently continue under certain circumstances (Silverburg 2011). And now that human rights concerns had been given a decent amount of consideration, intervention on humanitarian grounds became relevant. Thus humanitarian intervention (see Responsibility to Protect or R2P) became the modern-most core legal principle of the twenty first century. Summarily, the evolution of core legal principles culminated into a framework whereby both states and non-state actors became subjects of international law, states were no longer absolutely free from external intervention. Moreover, states failing to protect their citizens are subject to legally justified interventions under the Responsibility to Protect (Silverburg 2011).



Silverburg, Sanford R. 2011. International Law : Contemporary Issues and Future Developments. Boulder [Colo.]: Westview Press, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 21, 2015).


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