The mask that has long obscured the true nature and purpose of “international law”, the supposed foundation of the current global order, is finally off. As Palestinian cries for help from Gaza remain unanswered, the sinister truth is now undeniably out in the open:international justice, more often than not, is used as a tool to advance imperial interests, and not justice.
This was, of course, long known by anyone who has ever examined, even superficially, the history of imperialism, from the European scramble for Africa to more recent United States interventions in Latin America, and traced how that dark past has helped shape the way the world functions at present.
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Sure, at first glance, international law appears to be a noble concept, promoting peace, universal application of human rights, cooperation and justice among nations. However, scratch beneath the surface, and a different narrative emerges, shaped by the ghosts of imperialism past.
Just look at how international law was eagerly used, and is still being used, to defend, heal and deliver justice to the Ukrainian people in the face of Russian aggression. Now compare that with how the same laws, norms and principles were reduced to mere footnotes and suggestions in the West’s response to the ongoing Israeli assault on the Palestinians. The West, led by the United States, clearly only champions adherence to international law and the rules-based global order when it suits its agenda.
So how did we get here?
For centuries, colonial expansion and exploitation, driven by a thirst for resources and geopolitical dominance, defined Western history. A handful of European states carved the world up between themselves, conquering lands, stealing resources, and brutally subjugating and enslaving peoples. Throughout this period of colonial dominance, Western states acted as if sovereignty and self-determination were their natural right and privilege and no one else’s.
The two world wars, which devastated European powers and sped up the deterioration of their control over most of their colonial territories, disturbed this unjust and untenable status quo.
In the late 1940s, with European states struggling to rebuild and national independence movements in Africa and beyond gaining pace, a new rules-based international order began to take shape and concepts like human rights and right to self-determination of nations started to be codified in law. With the formation of the United Nations, and establishment of bodies like the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council, an illusion was created that these new set of rules applied to everyone – both the powerful Western states and their (former) colonies – equally and permanently.
While promoting the idea of national sovereignty and human rights on the surface, however, Western powers continued their habit of controlling, stealing from and exploiting other nations. They started to use this newly crafted “rules-based” order to covertly further their colonial policies and hinder similar efforts by their rivals. An initial test of international law and the institutions established to preserve it, came in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company case before the International Court of Justice in early 1950s. When the results did not serve imperial interests, the US and UK initiated Operation Ajax.
The US also wreaked havoc in Latin America throughout the latter half of the 20th century, toppling democratically elected governments, arming murderous militias and propping up dictators favourable to its agenda. Not only did it never face any sanction for these actions that blatantly broke international law, ridiculed the concept of national sovereignty and violated the basic human rights of millions, as embodied in Operation Condor.
The ongoing siege of Gaza under the umbrella of Operation Iron Swords, and the Western world’s support for it, is the latest – and perhaps the most obvious – example of the hypocrisy at the core of international law.
Israel, which has been illegally occupying Palestinian land and subjecting Palestinians to apartheid for decades, is now keeping over two million Palestinians, half of them children, under total blockade in Gaza, and indiscriminately bombing them.
In the face of such blatant violations of international law, and the declared intent to commit many more, how did the Western leaders of the international community, the self-assigned defenders of human rights across the world, respond?
They announced their unwavering support for Israel.
Why is this?
The strategic location of the region, rich in oil and gas reserves, has always served as a magnet, attracting the attention of those who seek to secure their energy interests, and historically influenced Western policies in the region. Prior to 1948, it was oil interests in the Iraq-Petroleum Company spanning from Kirkuk, Iraq to Haifa, Palestine. Today it is the developing Mediterranean natural gas interests of Chevron and British Petroleum. These may not be the sole reasons, but important variables for consideration in making sense of current geopolitical positions. The parallels between historical events and contemporary actions are striking. The Palestinian Question has long served as a wrench in these imperial ambitions and now they see an opportunity to dictate their own final solution.
So, now, the mask is off.
The Western powers can no longer claim that “international law” is supreme, and applies equally to everyone. As they shamelessly greenlight an unlawful and inhumane assault on Gaza, they cannot stop the conscientious citizens of the globe from questioning the integrity of the international legal system and challenging the notion that it is an impartial arbiter of justice. They can no longer hide the fact that international law is a tool created to serve imperial interests – a tool that allows them to act with impunity.
The Palestinian struggle is not just a struggle against occupation, apartheid and colonialism; it is a struggle against imperialism.
We need and deserve a new, just and equitable international order – one that truly upholds the principles of fairness, equality and respect for the rights of all nations, regardless of their size or geopolitical significance.
Only by acknowledging the true nature of international law, and its utter uselessness in delivering any sort of justice to people trying to resist imperial dominance, can we hope to dismantle the current global order and start building a world where justice prevails over power, and humanity triumphs over politics. It is a daunting task, but one that is essential if we are to create a future where the rights and dignity of every individual, regardless of their nationality, are respected and protected – a future where international law applies to everyone and is not weaponised by powerful states against their rivals.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.