UCL Faculty of Laws


Foundations and Principles of International Law (LAWS0373)

This module provides an advanced exploration of the foundations and core general rules of public international law, as well as key systemic concerns such as the international 'Rule of Law'.

International law has a range of specialist fields or subject areas which are taught as modules in the UCL LLM programme – including, among numerous examples, international human rights law, international environmental law, and international investment law. But international law also has a ‘general’ part, which applies across all of these specialisms. Any international lawyer must understand not only their specialist area of practice, but also the general international law framework which gives their subject its foundations and within which the specialist subject areas operate. The general rules of international law are, however, more than merely a framework – they remain the most important rules for many of the most significant problems and disputes in international law. 

This module provides an advanced analysis of the core general rules and principles of international law, exploring these rules and principles in both their historical and modern contexts. There is a focus on the key contemporary problems and issues, and on the shifts in international law over the last 100 years which inform current debates. The module thus includes an examination of broader themes in the historical development of international law – for example, the extent to which international law is modelled on the idea of ‘private law’ between sovereign states (including, for example, treaties as inter-state contracts), and the extent to which it is an emerging legal system, reliant also on public law ideas (including, for example, ideas of the ‘Rule of Law’, the role of peremptory norms as fundamental principles, and the debate about whether international law is undergoing ‘constitutionalisation’). 

The module will benefit any student who would like to develop further their understanding of international law’s foundations, including particularly students taking one or more of the specialist modules in international law who, wisely, would also like to enhance their knowledge and understanding of general international law. It does not require previous knowledge of international law, but it examines the material in significantly more depth and with a more critical perspective than undergraduate treatments. Students who have taken this module after studying international law at undergraduate level have found it both challenging and rewarding in developing their understanding of the subject.

Module Syllabus

Topics will include:

  • International personality – who are the ‘subjects’ or ‘actors’ recognised in international law? What ‘personality’ is possessed by international organisations, corporations, or natural persons? 

  • Statehood and self-determination – what rules determine the status of entities whose statehood is disputed? What role is played by recognition or nonrecognition by other states, or by claims of self-determination? 

  • Sources of international law – what rules govern the formation and identification of the sources of international law, including treaties, customary international law, general principles of law, and peremptory norms? To what extent are the sources of international law based on the consent of each individual sovereign state, and to what extent does international law recognise collective or majoritarian law-making processes? 

  • State responsibility – when is a state responsible for a breach of international law, and what consequences follow from such a breach? To what extent do the rules on state responsibility recognise collective community interests, beyond the interests of directly affected states? 

  • The jurisdiction of states – what are the limits on the regulatory powers of states? When can states assert authority outside their territory? When are states obliged to exercise jurisdiction under international law, including under the international minimum standard of treatment of foreign nationals, and under evolving individual rights of access to justice? 

  • The immunities of states and their agents – what immunities are states and their agents entitled to before foreign courts? How can these immunities be reconciled with the rights of access to justice of individual victims of torture or other human rights breaches by foreign states? 

  • The ‘Rule of Law’ in international law – In what way and to what extent does international law possess the characteristics of a ‘Rule of Law’ system? For example, what is the role played by peremptory norms as fundamental principles of international law; to what extent does the United Nations establish a constitutional order for the international system; and how do the limits on international dispute settlement affect the potential and promise of an international ‘Rule of Law’? 

Recommended Materials

Module reading lists and other module materials will be provided via online module pages, available at the beginning of term once students have enrolled. 

There is no set text book for the module. Reading will include case law, articles, and chapters from a number of the leading texts. In general, however, introductory reading will be assigned from one or both of the following books (available online with UCL login details): 

  • Evans (ed), “International Law” (5th edn, 2018, Oxford University Press)
  • Crawford and Koskenniemi (eds), “The Cambridge Companion to International Law” (2012, Cambridge University Press) 

For more detailed reference, we suggest: 

  • Crawford, “Brownlie’s Principles of Public International Law” (9th edn, 2019, OUP)
  • Shaw, “International Law” (9th edn, 2021, CUP) 

Preliminary reading 

Students who have not previously studied public international law, or who wish to refresh their memories on the subject, may wish to read: 

  • Dixon, ‘Textbook on International Law’ (7th edn, 2013, OUP)
  • Klabbers, ‘International Law’ (3rd edn, 2020, CUP)
  • Lowe, ‘International Law’ (2007, OUP) 

Key information

Module details
Credit value:22.5 credits (225 learning hours)
Convenor:Alex Mills
Kimberley Trapp 
Other Teachers:


Teaching Delivery:Term 1, 10 x 2-hour weekly lectures
Who may enrol:Restricted to LLM students only
Prerequisites:None (prior knowledge of international law useful but not essential)
Must not be taken with:None
Qualifying module for:

LLM in International Law

Practice Assessment:TBD
Final Assessment:2 Hour in Person Controlled Condition Exam (100%)