Professor Sundhya Pahuja's book, Decolonising International Law: Development, Economic Growth and the Politics of Universality (Cambridge University Press, 2011) was recently awarded the American Society of International Law's Certificate of Merit. We asked Professor Pahuja about the book and what motivated her to write it.
The universal promise of contemporary international law has long inspired poorer countries (the Global South) to use it as an important field of contestation over global inequality. And yet each time an attempt has been made to call on that promise, the results have been disappointing. These disappointments have not dissuaded countries from trying to use international law in this way, such
that international law, and especially human rights and development, are today, the most prominent secular languages in which claims about justice and equality are made globally.
Making sense of this puzzling combination was the impetus for this book. In it, I track three central examples of attempts by the Global South to call on the universal promise of international law. These contests move from the end of the Second World War and colonialism to the present day. The examples are: the anti-colonial struggles which began around the end of the Second World War; the attempt to capture control over natural resources from the inherited patterns of ownership; and the attempt at the end of the Cold War to restructure international relations around an international rule of law.
As each example unfolds, I outline the ways in which the universal promises (of equality, autonomy, respect) that international law makes, get taken up within a claim for a particular way of life by the idea of "development". As we move through the story, as the horizon of the promised transformation and concomitant equality recedes ever further, international law legitimises an ever-increasing sphere of intervention in the Global South. And so, the post-war wave of decolonisation ends in the creation of the developmental nation-state; the claim to permanent sovereignty over natural resources in the 1950s and 1960s is transformed into the protection of foreign investors; and the promotion of the rule of international law in the early 1990s brings about the rise of the rule of law as a primary development strategy in the present day.
The rise in the legal, symbolic and political importance of international law (including the concepts of development and human rights), and its institutional spread has happened over the same period as a steep rise in global inequality, and the rapid approach of the biophysical limits of the earth. And so as the book tells its three stories, it tries also to understand the relationship between these seemingly opposed phenomena.
Essentially it tries to "make sense" of the place of international law and institutions in the global political- economy, not only as a toothless language of virtue as we commonly understand, but as a powerfully constitutive feature in creating the world in which we live. This creation happens through the practices of legal categorisation. Such categorisations have the effect of depoliticising particular questions by transforming them into technical ones.
If international law and institutions are to maintain their credibility as a forum for the negotiation of peaceful cohabitation, they must be capable of helping us to address global inequality within the earth's limits, perhaps the key challenge of our time.
As I discovered whilst I wrote this book, these 'political choices made technical' by international law, include assumptions about the centrality of economic growth and consumption-based development to our conceptions of well-being. If international law and institutions are to maintain their credibility as a forum for the negotiation of peaceful cohabitation, they must be capable of helping us to address global inequality within the earth's limits, perhaps the key challenge of our time. This is a challenge which will require uncovering the ways in which international law is part of the problem, not only part of the solution. This book may help us to better understand the place of international law and institutions in the global-political economy.
Professor Pahuja has been invited to give the Freilich Foundation's 2012 Alice Tay Lecture in Law and Human Rights.It will be held at the Australian National University in Canberra in October this year.
Image: Professor Sundhya Pahuja