Withdrawing from International Custom

74 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 2009 Last revised: 22 Dec 2014

See all articles by Curtis Bradley

Curtis Bradley

University of Chicago Law School

Mitu Gulati

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: December 15, 2009


Treaties are negotiated, usually written down, and often subject to cumbersome domestic ratification processes. Nonetheless, nations often have the right to unilaterally withdraw from them. By contrast, the conventional wisdom is that nations never have the legal right to withdraw unilaterally from the unwritten rules of customary international law (“CIL”), a proposition that we refer to as the “Mandatory View.” It is not obvious, however, why it should be easier to exit from treaties than from CIL, especially given the significant overlap that exists today between the regulatory coverage of treaties and CIL. In this Article, we consider both the intellectual history and functional desirability of the Mandatory View. We find that many international law publicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought that CIL rules were sometimes subject to unilateral withdrawal, at least if a nation gave notice about its intent. We also find that the Mandatory View did not come to dominate international law commentary until sometime in the twentieth century, and even then there were significant uncertainties about how the Mandatory View would work in practice. Moreover, we note that there are reasons to question the normative underpinnings of the shift to the Mandatory View, since it appears to have been part of an effort to bind “uncivilized” states to the international law worked out by a small group of Western powers. After reviewing this history, we draw on theories developed with respect to contract law, corporate law, voting rules, and constitutional design to consider whether it is functionally desirable to restrict opt out rights to the extent envisioned by the Mandatory View. We conclude that, although there are arguments for restricting opt out in select areas of CIL, it is difficult to justify the Mandatory View as a general account of how CIL should operate.

Keywords: customary international law, treaty withdrawal, persistent objector, opt out rights

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Bradley, Curtis and Gulati, Mitu, Withdrawing from International Custom (December 15, 2009). Yale Law Journal, Vol. 120, p. 202, 2010, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1523906

Curtis Bradley (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Mitu Gulati

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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