International law is not just for lawyers. It affects our daily lives, whether we are buying bananas at the supermarket, or medicine at the chemist's. Here are some everyday examples.
Public international law in our daily lives
The perfect yellow
For the bananas we find in the shops to be yellow, and not all dark and overripe, we need international law. The Codex Alimentarius, for example, is a set of international regulations introduced in 1962 to protect consumers. It sets standards for the quality of food products. Where bananas are concerned, the Codex determines the condition and ripeness of the fruit when it is harvested, so that it is not damaged in transit and is perfectly ripe at the point of sale. However, it also governs other aspects such as the maximum pesticide residue that may remain on the fruit.
The norms of the Codex are used by states as a reference when drafting their own food legislation. This has resulted in the international harmonisation of food standards, which then facilitates cross-border trade. This in turn also benefits the Swiss foodstuffs industry, which has a strong international focus.
Once sold as a rare delicacy, the banana has become the most popular fruit in the world. The World Trade Organization and bilateral trade and agricultural agreements govern how bananas are traded. These rules simplify their international carriage and handling from the place they are grown to our tables. Around half of all bananas imported into Switzerland now bear a fair trade label.
Easier to swallow
Where there are medicines, there is also law. The pharmaceuticals business is a highly regulated domain. To protect consumer health, international law intervenes by guaranteeing faster, safer access to certain medicines. Thanks to bilateral agreements, medicines tested in another country may be marketed in Switzerland without undergoing another long and costly series of tests. In this way, international law makes certain pills easier to swallow.
But not just any pills: fake and unauthorised medicines are also a threat to health. Close cooperation between states is required to combat this lucrative but dangerous market. Entering into force this year, the Council of Europe Medicrime Convention, signed by Switzerland in 2011, now gives national authorities the means to stop the illegal trade in medicines. Among other things, signatory states must now classify the production, marketing and sale of counterfeit medicines as criminal offences.
When postcards appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century, rules were needed to send post across borders. The Universal Postal Union (UPU) was founded in Bern in 1874. When they adopted the Universal Postal Convention, the 192 Member States of the UPU created a ‘single postal territory’ allowing post to pass freely between their countries. All users enjoy the right to a basic quality of universal postal service, provided on a permanent basis at every point of their territory at affordable prices.
The Convention and the other agreements concluded within the Postal Union govern a whole range of aspects of our post, such as where the address should be written, postal codes, and how it should be stamped. These rules ensure that the recipient’s address is not confused with that of the sender. Postcards even owe their distinct look to these agreements: they determine their rectangular shape, and reserve the right-hand half of the reverse for the stamp and the recipient’s name and address.
Now that everyone carries a mobile phone, "where are you?" is probably the question most frequently heard in every language as people go about their daily business. No matter where we happen to be, we can always be reached by mobile phone. And because we're never apart from our smart phones, we use them not just to make phone calls but also to take and send photos, download new apps, listen to podcasts and watch YouTube videos.
We can thank the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for this. The ITU developed the first cellular radio system for mobile telephony services: the third generation of cellular radio for mobile telephony (3G). Thanks to standards developed by the ITU, mobile networks around the world can now be seamlessly interconnected. Without these standards we would not be able use our phones abroad or make calls abroad.
Many other technologies, such as internet connections, weather forecasts and GPS navigation, depend on the work carried out by the ITU. For example, the ITU assigns frequencies and orbits to satellites that provide us with all sorts of modern services.
Put the clock back
"What time is it?" "Ten past seven." Asking the time is an ingrained part of our day-to-day lives. But how do we know that we are all on the same time? The second is a basic unit that allows us to quantify time. Like the metre, the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin and the candela, the second – which is now defined in the ISO 80000-3 standard – is a unit of the International System of Units.
The International Bureau of Weights and Measures is responsible for promoting and adapting the International System of Units. It was founded by the Metre Convention, which was signed in Paris on 20 May 1875. States that have adopted the Convention can therefore work together on all matters relating to units of measure.
The advent of railways and the need for accurate timetables made it increasingly necessary to establish uniform time, first at the national and then at the international level. An international conference held in Washington in 1884 adopted the 24-hour-day and universal time measured at the Greenwich Meridian.
Today, time is calculated based on data collected from atomic clocks, which are the world's most accurate timekeeping devices. Atomic clocks are used to establish coordinated universal time (CUT), which is used as a reference time scale in most countries around the world. In accordance with the ISO 8601 standard, the 24 time zones are calculated according to this scale. Swiss time, for example, is calculated as "CUT+1".
Children's safety is no playing matter
Disney has factories in China and Playmobil factories in Europe. Toys are certainly footloose. But how do we make sure that a toy does not pose a risk to a baby who is discovering the world by putting things in their mouth?
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has issued ISO standards on toy safety, specifically their flammability, permissible concentrations of chemicals such as phthalates in plastic toys, and guidelines for toys intended for use by children in various age groups. These standards are not legally binding; they are examples that can be adopted by states, which Switzerland has in fact done.
The harmonisation of standards helps ensure the safety of children and at the same time avoid trade barriers. In Switzerland, toys are covered by an agreement with the European Union which stipulates that the EU's and Switzerland's safety requirements are considered to be equivalent. Consumers can therefore trust that toys that have crossed the border between Switzerland and an EU state pose no danger to children.
In 1865 phylloxera, an aphid pest native to North America which is harmful to grape crops, was accidentally introduced to Europe and went on to destroy most of Europe's vineyards. It was decided to set up an international system to protect plant crops. In 1881 five countries signed the first convention undertaking to fight the spread of phylloxera. Certain alien invasive species have since then been identified as the direct cause of the loss of global biodiversity.
To prevent the spread of agricultural pests the international community has drawn up a list of pests against which measures must be taken. The International Plant Protection Convention was adopted as early as 1952, and the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted in 1992, giving states a framework for cooperation in the fight against the spread of pests across international borders.
Since Switzerland concluded a bilateral agreement on agriculture with the European Union in 1999, a 'plant passport' has been required for the commercial marketing of plants from the EU in Switzerland. The plant passport certifies that susceptible plants have been grown in a place of production where no pests have been observed in official inspections. The goal is to prevent pests from being introduced to new regions where they could cause serious harm to agriculture and the natural environment.
Some 10,000 new titles – ranging from fiction to self-help books to ornithology books – are published in Switzerland each year. Half as many titles were published in the 1960s, and seven times fewer over a century ago. But even in the 19th century, authors were fighting to assert their ownership of their works, and laid the groundwork for the system that is still in place today: the Berne Convention was adopted in 1886 following a campaign waged by the French writer Victor Hugo and the International Literary and Artistic Association which he presided.
The Berne Convention is an international convention guaranteeing the protection of literary and artistic works and rights of authors over their creative works which has been ratified by nearly all states in the world (186). Works protected by copyright include not only books but also musical works, paintings, sculptures and films, computer programs, databases, advertising material, maps and technical drawings.
The aim of copyright is to give creators of works the right to control and receive payment for the use of their creative works at international level. The convention grants foreign works the same protection as national works. It also stipulates that no one may translate or reproduce a book without the author's agreement. Authors are as a rule entitled to copyright protection during their lifetime and for 50 years after their death – 70 years in Switzerland.
The protection of industrial, specialised or artistic creations is guaranteed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Founded in 1893 and integrated into the UN in 1974, WIPO is one of the UN's oldest specialised agencies.
Do you have your papers?
Nowadays, an identity card is a staple feature of any purse or wallet and its holder is rarely without it. However, that hasn't always been the case. While laissez-passer documents for crossing borders have been around for centuries, the requirement to hold an official identity document only dates back to the First World War, when European countries introduced passports so that they could identify their own nationals and carry out border checks for security purposes. When the war ended, the requirement to present a passport at borders remained in place.
In 1920, a Conference on Passports, Customs Formalities and Through Tickets was held in Paris under the auspices of the League of Nations. Signatory states standardised the passport's format – adopting a booklet form – and contents. Today, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN specialised agency, is responsible for passport standardisation.
Following the 1957 European Agreement on Regulations governing the Movement of Persons between Member States of the Council of Europe, Swiss citizens only needed a valid identity card to travel within Europe. More recently, Switzerland's entry into the Schengen Area in 2004 means that its citizens can cross European borders without even having to show an ID card.
Outside Europe, Switzerland has bilateral agreements exempting nationals of state parties from a visa requirement for stays of up to three months without gainful employment. Such agreements exist with Chile, Hong Kong and Brazil, among others. This means it is now possible to set off around the world with just an identity document in one pocket and a plane ticket in the other – even on the spur of the moment!
The invisible blade
The Swiss army knife: a national symbol. Švicarski nož. มีดพับสวิส. Navaja suiza. 스위스 칼. It’s everywhere – but not always only made in Switzerland. While the idea of a small pocket knife with folding blades is not unique to the Swiss army knife, the latter owes its success in part to international law.
The creator of the Swiss officer's knife applied for an initial patent back in 1897. A patent grants a temporary monopoly on a technical invention for a certain period of time so that the patent holder can be the first to market it. A number of patents are in force in Switzerland and abroad for components of the multifunction knife, such as the intermediate plate for fixing and articulating the blades, the blade locking system and the blade housing system. The European Patent Convention enables a patent to be obtained in over 30 European countries, including Switzerland, in a single procedure. This makes the administrative process much simpler.
If other manufacturers produce similar knives, how can you tell a genuine Swiss army knife? The emblem of the shield with a white cross has been protected since 1909, and is today a registered trademark in over 130 countries. No other manufacturer has the right to use it in those countries. The World Intellectual Property Organization administers a system of intellectual property protection whereby protection can be extended to around 100 contracting states with a single application. International law is therefore the invisible blade of the Swiss army knife.