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Basics of International and Foreign Law: Definitions: International v. Foreign

A short and sweet introduction to understanding, researching, and keeping up-to-date with international, foreign, and comparative law topics.

Just fully defining basic concepts related to international, foreign, and comparative law can fill several books. The following succinct definitions (emphasis added) are from Marci B. Hoffman & Robert C. Berring, International Legal Research in a Nutshell 3-8 (2008). KZ1234 .H64 2008 (reserve). For more information, consult a reference librarian, a research guide, or International Legal Research in a Nutshell

Common Definitions

  • Public international law governs the relationships between national governments, the relationships between intergovernmental organizations, and the relationships between national governments and intergovernmental organizations.” (3)
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  • Private international law governs the choice of law to apply when there are conflicts in the domestic law of different countries that relate to private transactions between individual parties.”
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  • Foreign law is essentially the national or subnational law of a sovereign nation. It defines the role of governments with relation to the people they govern and controls relationships between people.”
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  • Comparative law is the study of the similarities and differences between the laws of two or more countries, or between two or more legal systems. Comparative law is not itself a system of law or a body of rules, but rather a method or approach to legal inquiry.” (internal quotations omitted)
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  • Transnational law generally includes all law which regulates actions or events that transcend national frontiers. Both public and private international are included, as are other rules which do not wholly fit into such standard categories. Works on this subject invariably focus on the legal relationship between a person and alien individuals or corporations, most frequently in commercial, industrial, or investment situations.” (internal citations omitted).
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  • Supranational law: “Practically speaking there is only one supranational legal order – the European Union (EU). A supranational organization has the following characteristics: (1) it has powers that its member states do not have because they surrender those powers to it; (2) it may enact rules that preempt the laws and regulations of its member states; and (3) it can grant rights and privileges to the nationals of its member states, which those nationals may directly invoke.”
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  • Soft law encompasses non-binding documents or instruments (such as guidelines, declarations, and principles) that may have use politically, but are not enforceable. Not that any international law is really enforceable, but soft law does not even have the pretense of being more than aspirational.”