Critically discuss the current status and historical development of the international legal personalities of States, Inter-governmental Organisations, Non-governmental Organisations, Multinational Corporations, and Individuals.

By International legal personality, it is meant to include ability of entities to ratify or sign agreements and treaties, enter into contracts and have obligations and rights under international law. In other words, it is the international legal personality of entities that determines whether they can be subjects of international law. According to the ICJ, an entity has international legal personality if it is: 

"Capable of possessing international rights and duties and [has] the capacity to maintain its rights by bringing international claims.¹" 


International legal personality of States is the oldest form of personality recognised by international law. In fact, international law developed from the international relations of sovereign States. So as to be able to conduct agreements with each other, States had to recognise each other's personality to act. As international law is still largely the creation of States, the international legal personality of States is the most complete form of personality known to international law. This has been referred to by the ICJ as original personality under international law.

As early as in 1949, the International Court of Justice ruled that some international organisations could possess legal personality. The case involved the status of the United Nations and the Court held that it did possess international legal personality.² The rationale behind this decision was that the UN got its legal personality by virtue of its Charter which all States accepted. Also, since the UN had duties and responsibilities under international law, it was logical that it also had international legal personality to the extent necessary to carry out its functions as described in the Charter. It can be submitted that this personality is given to the organisation by States and as such is a derived personality.

Also, this principle is also applicable to other international organisations. Just to cite an example, the World Health Organisation has personality to the extent that it can perform the functions for which it was created. However, the scope of such international organisations' personality under international law is limited. They are entitled to exercise their personality to the extent that it is necessary for the proper performance of their functions. Hence, when the WHO referred a question to the ICJ regarding the legality of nuclear weapons³, it was held by the Court that the question was outside the ambit of its role and therefore it lacked the personality to apply to the ICJ for a ruling. 

It has to be noted that other entities such as multinational corporations still do not enjoy direct personality under international law and may only act on the basis of their nationality.

Post Second World War, individuals were prosecuted for the violation of international law and this extension of individual responsibility is now permanently enshrined in the Rome Statute of the ICJ. Subsequent to these responsibilities, individuals now enjoy a form of limited personality under certain human rights treaties and instruments whereby they are entitled to make formal complaints against States for breaches of their rights. This is often referred to as soft law because individuals still lack the necessary personality under international law to have a direct recourse to international tribunals for the protection of their rights. 

¹ Reparation for injuries suffered in the service of the United Nations, Advisory Opinion: ICJ Reports 1949, p. 179
² Reparation for injuries suffered in the service of the United Nations, Advisory Opinion: ICJ Reports 1949
³ Legality of the Use by a State of Nuclear Weapons in Armed Conflict (General List No. 93)



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