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What Does "Erga Omnes" Mean?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2014
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Erga omnes is a Latin legal term that means “in relation to all.” It refers to rights and responsibilities that can be enforced against anyone, rather than against a specific person or party. Erga omnes is most frequently found in relation to laws that involve the public and international law.

An erga omneslaw is one that can hold any member of the general public in violation. It is usually described in contrast with contract law, which only gives enforceable powers over signatories. Buying a house, for instance, is a form of contract, since no one but the buyer and seller are obligated to fulfill the terms of the cotnract. Trespassing laws, on the other hand, are erga omnes laws since anyone could be prosecuted for breaking them. Most statutory laws are a form of erga omnes.

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In international law, erga omnes has a distinct and extremely important function. Many international law documents, including decisions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations' Charter, and the International Law Commission, all agree that there are some areas where all states and regions have obligations to one another and to the international community as a whole. The first formal discussion of these obligations came forth in a 1970 judgment by the ICJ, in a statement that laid out the legal idea of international responsibility. There are several different areas where laws may be applied internationally due to mutual interest, including environmental, human rights, and peacekeeping issues.

One of the simplest examples of why a law might be considered erga omnes is in the consideration of environmental statutes. If one country pollutes the air and the water of its neighbors, or destroys shared ecosystems that cross borders, it may be understandable that the disturbed neighbors may consider this a breach of shared responsibilities. Moreover, if this pollution disrupts health, destroys shared resources, and promotes global warming, it may also be seen that the international community has some right to manage such behaviors.

The essential idea behind erga omnes in international law is that there are some rights in which every state has an interest. The violation of these rights, such as in the pursuit of genocide, piracy, or environmental destruction, not only endangers the rights of the people directly involved, but also disrupts the balance of the international community. Erga omnes disputes are frequently brought to the ICJ for determination, since no state court has the authority to render international judgments with any force.

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