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International Law

International Law (5th edn)

Malcolm Evans
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date: 30 May 2024

p. 1195. Soft Law in International Law-Makinglocked

p. 1195. Soft Law in International Law-Makinglocked

  • Alan Boyle


From a law-making perspective the term ’soft lawʼ is in most cases simply a convenient description for a variety of non-legally binding instruments used in contemporary international relations by States and international organizations. Soft law in this sense can be contrasted with hard law, which is always binding. Non-binding soft law instruments are not law per se, but may be evidence of existing law, or formative of the opinio juris or State practice that generates new customary law. They may additionally acquire binding legal character as elements of a treaty-based regulatory regime, or constitute a subsequent agreement between the parties regarding interpretation of a treaty or application of its provisions. Other non-binding soft-law instruments are significant mainly because they are the first step in a process eventually leading to conclusion of a multilateral treaty, or because they provide the detailed rules and technical standards required for the implementation of a treaty. An alternative view of soft law focuses on the contrast between ’rulesʼ, involving clear and reasonably specific commitments which are in this sense hard law, and ’normsʼ or ’principlesʼ, which, being more open-textured or general in their content and wording, can thus be seen as soft even when contained in a binding treaty. It is a fallacy to dismiss soft law because it does not readily fit a theory of what is ‘law’: properly understood, it can and does contribute to the corpus of international law-making.

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