The Law of Gravity

58 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2020 Last revised: 21 Sep 2022

See all articles by Rachel López

Rachel López

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law

Date Written: April 1, 2020


Gravity is frequently referenced in treaties, judicial decisions of international and regional bodies, human rights reports, and the resolutions and proclamations of various bodies of the United Nations. These documents refer to certain violations of international law as being “gross,” “serious,” and “grave.” These terms are frequently used interchangeably but seldom defined, and it is often unclear what makes a violation particularly grave. Is it the extreme harm to the victim, the type of violation involved, who committed the violation, or rather the intention of the wrongdoer?

Despite the lack of clarity around the concept, classifying a violation as grave has significant legal consequences under international law. Gravity can determine whether an international court has jurisdiction to prosecute a crime or when a treaty monitoring body can take up an issue. States are prohibited from selling arms to other States if they commit grave violations of human rights or humanitarian law. Gravity has also been used to justify military intervention or punishing a State more harshly for its wrongful acts.

This Article brings more grounding to gravity by examining the concept in all of its forms and offers the first scholarly treatment of gravity across public international law as a whole. As legal history demonstrates, gravity is a, if not the, principal unifying force across international criminal law, human rights law, and humanitarian law. Despite the absence of a formal definition of grave violations, a close examination of gravity’s jurisprudence reveals a common set of factors that international courts and other entities typically weigh when determining that a violation is grave. Closer adherence to these factors will result in more uniform and cohesive accountability for those violations that are of most concern to humankind.

Keywords: Grave Violations, Gross, Systematic, Erga Omnes, Jus Cogens, International Criminal Law, Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Law of Armed Conflict, United Nations, Proportionality, Inter-American Court, European Court

Suggested Citation

López, Rachel, The Law of Gravity (April 1, 2020). The Law of Gravity, 58 COLUM. J. TRANSNAT’L L. 565 (2020)., Available at SSRN:

Rachel López (Contact Author)

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law ( email )

3320 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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