University of Iceland

Are oral statements legally binding?

Are oral statements legally binding?

“The study deals with how legal obligations of states may potentially be instituted in international law without being traced to traditional sources of law, as they are described in legal theory,” says Pétur Dam Leifsson, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law.

One of the most important sources of international law are international treaties, but their existence is generally tied to a particular substance and form. Leifsson took the alternative route of examining phenomena sometimes considered to be equivalent to treaties despite not counting as proper international treaties. Statements of joint policy in particular issued by proper authorities made orally are the most important example of this. “I was mainly interested in whether and under which circumstances such statements could potentially be legally binding for states under international law,” says Leifsson.

The subject intrigued him, and furthermore it has not been thoroughly researched. Many are familiar with the potential legal meaning of ministers in connection with the ICESAVE debate, and joint statements on policy in that context; and also with such statements in the context of Iceland’s defence cooperation with the USA.  Leifsson’s goal was to give clearer focus to such discussions.

Leifsson’s main findings have been that joint statements on policy and oral proclamations by public authorities may create obligations under international law, but only in certain circumstances. “The value of the study lies in laying down guidelines regarding what criteria must be taken into account for each specific case. This is work on innovation as ‘real’ scientists would call it, says Leifsson.

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