International LawLegal MaterialsPremium

Understanding the 6 Subjects of International Law

Adam Ilyas

Understanding the 6 Subjects of International Law

Share this article
Understanding the 6 Subjects of International Law
Ilustrasi Gambar oleh Redaksi

Legal Literacy – This article discusses the subjects of law in international law, specifically about two types of subjects of international law, namely state actor and non-state actor. In addition, the article also describes eight subjects of international law, including States, Holy See, International Organisations, International Red Cross, Rebels, Individuals, Multinational/Transnational Corporations, and Non-governmental organisations. Several sources from international law books support this article.

In international law, there are legal subjects who are the owners or holders of rights and obligations in international law. According to Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, legal subjects are parties whose activities or actions are regulated in such a way that they have the authority to carry out their activities based on existing positive law (Kusumaatmadja & Agoes, 2010, p. 95). Meanwhile, according to Martin Dixon, the subject of international law is a body that has the ability to exercise rights and obligations under international law (Sefriani, 2011, p. 102). From the definition of the subject of international law, it can be explained that the subject of international law represents parties and actors as actors of activities in international law.

In international law, there are two types of international law subjects, namely state actors and non-state actors. These two types of legal subjects have differences in their legal capacity, where there are those with full legal capacity and limited legal capacity. There are eight subjects of international law, namely States, the Holy See, the Vatican/The Holy Emperor, International Organisations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Belligerents, Insurgents, Individuals, Multinational Corporations/Transnational Corporations, and Non-governmental organizations. This is explained in the book Kusumaatmadja & R.Agoes, 2010, p. 95-112.

The following is an explanation of each subject of international law:

Subjects of International Law: Country

The first subject of international law is the state. States have full legal capacity as subjects of international law (Parthiana, 2002, p. 18). The history of the state as a subject of international law can be found in ancient India where there were laws governing nations. During this period, there was an exchange of royal envoys and arrangements were made for the conduct of war and the protection of civilians (Kusumaatmadja & Agoes, 2010, p. 26). 

Hall’s International Lawem,   1880 and the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States in 1933 also became the foundation in the formation of the state as a subject of international law, where international law regulates relations or relations between states that voluntarily become subjects in the relationship. The characteristics of a state are that it has permanent political power, has a territory, and is free from the rule of other countries / outside parties.

Subjects of International Law: Holy See (Vatican / Holy Emperor)

The second subject of international law is the Holy See (Vatican/Holy Emperor). The history of recognising the Holy See as a subject of international law dates back to Roman times, where there was a difference in leadership between the monarchy and the Church.

At that time, an emperor led the empire, while the Pope led the Church with authority that exceeded that of an emperor (Kusumaatmadja & Agoes, 2003, p. 100). In 1870, the Holy See was forcibly taken over by Italy, which resulted in conflict. However, the conflict ended with the making of the Lateran Treaty on 11 February 1929, in which the Holy See regained land in Rome and allowed the establishment of the Vatican state, so that the Vatican was recognised as a subject of international law (Kusumaatmadja & Agoes, 2003).

Also Read: The Existence of Drones under International and Indonesian Law

Subjects of International Law: Legal Subjects of International Organisations

The third legal subject is International Organisations. International organisations were considered as subjects of international law after the assassination of Prince Bernadotte of Sweden in Israel in 1958 when he was performing duties as a member of the United Nations (UN) commission (Kusumaatmadja & Agoes, 2003, p. 102). After the incident, the UN proposed Advisory Opinion (AO) to the International Court of Justice, which explains that when a UN agent is injured or wounded, the state is responsible for it. The AO made the UN a subject of international law.

Subjects of International Law: International Red Cross (International Committee of the Red Cross)

The fourth legal subject is the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is considered a legal subject because of the war between Austrian and French forces spearheaded by a Swiss citizen named Henry Dunant on 24 June 1859. At the time, Dunant was travelling through the Solferino area and witnessed the war first-hand for 16 hours. There were many casualties, reaching around 40,000 injured and even dead, but there was no medical assistance or health teams at the time.

Dunant then invited the neighbouring population to care for the victims, and provided equal care equally between both sides of the war. After returning to Switzerland, Dunant published his experiences in a book of memories in Solferino, in which he made two serious appeals: firstly, that an association for peacetime humanitarian aid be established, and secondly, that volunteers assisting medical teams be recognised and protected in international treaties. In order to achieve these goals, the ICRC needs to have its legal status recognised by the international community. This status and recognition is very important for the ICRC as it works all over the world. (ICRC, 2005)

Subjects of International Law: Belligerents or insurgents.

The rebel group or commonly called Belligerents or Insurgentsem,  are one of the subjects of international law. They arise when there is conflict or disagreement within a country. The emergence of Belligerentsem,  related to the recognition and application of International Humanitarian Law. This law aims to supervise the activities of the parties involved in an armed conflict, so that the basic rights of each member of the parties to the conflict are guaranteed.

In the 1949 Geneva Conventions, article 3, paragraph 1 explains that all matters relating to human rights, such as hostage-taking, torture, rape, murder, and lynching, are prohibited against any person. Therefore, whenever an armed conflict occurs in a country, Belligerents are automatically formed and International Humanitarian Law applies.

International Humanitarian Law, also known as the Law of War or the Law of Armed Disputes, has a history as long as human civilisation, and is closely related to war itself.

Subjects of International Law: Individuals

Individuals are subjects of international law separate from state subjects. The beginning of the recognition of the individual in international law began during World War I through the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Individuals also have the right to bring their country’s problems to the International Court of Justice, as did a group of war criminals in World War II who were tried at the Tokyo Tribunal and Nuremberg. Through both tribunals, Germany and Japan were held accountable for crimes committed by individuals within the two countries, including crimes against peace, the laws of war, and humanity.

The recognition of the individual as a subject of international law is also found in decisions of the Permanent Court of International Justice, such as in the case of the railway employees in Danzig, as well as decisions of regional and international organisations, such as the UN, ILO, and the European Community. In such cases, individuals have the right to significant recognition in international law and international justice.


  1. Parthiana, I Wayan, International Treaty Law Bag: 1, Mould I, Mandar Maju, Bandung, 2002
  2.  Kusumaatmadja, Mochtar and Etty R Agoes, Introduction to International Law, PT. Alumni, Bandung, Second Edition, 1st Printing, 2003 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Understanding Legal Subjects in Civil Law

This article discusses the subject of law which is divided into three types, namely the natural person (natuurlijke persoon), legal person (rechts persoon), and figures/officials. The article also informs about the changes in determining the age of majority according to Article 39 paragraph 1 of Law No. 30/2004 on the Position of Notary.