The Power and Purpose of International Law

Mary Ellen O'Connell

Oxford University Press, 2008

The Power and Purpose of International Law seeks to provide an accurate account of the important role of international law and amid such challenges as the impact of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the use of torture and secret detention, Guantanamo, climate change, nuclear proliferation, weakened international institutions, and other issues related directly or indirectly to international law.

Mary Ellen O'Connell explains the purpose of international law and the power it has to achieve that purpose. International law supports order in the world and the attainment of humanity's fundamental goals of peace, prosperity, respect for human rights, and protection of the natural environment. These goals can best be realized through international law, which uniquely has the capacity to bind even a superpower of the world.

By exploring the roots and history of international law, and by looking at specific events in the history of international law, this book demonstrates the why and the how of international law and its enforcement. It directly confronts the notion that international law is "powerless" and that working within the framework of international law is useless or counter-productive. As the world moves forward, it is critical that both leaders and their citizens understand the true power and purpose of international law and this book creates a valuable resource for them to aid their understanding. It uses a clear, compelling style to convey topical, informative and cutting-edge information to the reader.


"A lucid modern analysis of the perennial great question about international law: international it is, but is it law? That question recently has been pressed with acerbic pertinacity; Professor O'Connell answers with informed vigor."
— Stephen M. Schwebel, President of the International Court of Justice (1997-2000)

"Professor Mary Ellen O'Connell adds her fresh views and clear-eyed vision to the battle to have America take international law seriously. Concomitantly, her message points to the way a new administration in Washington could hope to have the world take America's leadership seriously."
— Thomas Franck, Murry and Ida Becker Professor of Law Emeritus, New York University School of Law and co-author of The Law and Practice of the United Nations (OUP 2007)

"A brave, and sadly necessary, affirmation that the Rule of Law is an essential precondition for civilised life, even in nations whose leaders may think that they have no immediate need for it."
— Vaughn Lowe, Chichele Professor of Public International Law, All Souls College, Oxford University and author of International Law (OUP 2007)