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46 Harv. Int'l L.J. 459 (2005)
The Postcoloniality of International Law

handle is hein.journals/hilj46 and id is 465 raw text is: VOLUME 46, NUMBER 2, SUMMER 2005

The Postcoloniality of International Law
Sundhya Pahuja*
How are we to understand the relationship between international law and
imperialism? What bearing might that have on how we see contemporary
international law? According to one view, international law is simply a cloak of
legality thrown over the subjugation of colonized peoples by the imperial
powers in a distortion of international law's true spirit.1 According to this
understanding, the contemporary task is to rid international law of the ves-
tiges of that misappropriation. We must accept decolonization at face value
and continue to broaden the scope and content of international law in a cul-
turally sensitive way. Meeting the Symposium's stated goal of envisioning
new orders would therefore require the rescue of international law from the
corruption of power to make good international, law's explicit promise of uni-
versality and sovereign equality.2
At the other end of the spectrum is the belief that international law has al-
ways been encompassed by and in the service to empire. At this pole, the very
doctrines and institutions of international law are understood to have been
molded by the powerful in order to serve their interests. Those who hold power
in the contemporary setting maintain the capacity to create and deploy in-
ternational law, in turn facilitating practices of (neo)colonialism.
However, most scholars engaged with the postcolonial in some form or
other would hesitate to embrace either of these two polar positions. On the
one hand, the perception of international law as an innocent victim waiting
to be rescued from the corruptions of imperialism is untenable. On the other
hand, the view that international law abjectly serves empire is equally un-
popular with those so engaged. They are generally unwilling to accept such
an encompassing frame and its attendant demand to abandon international
law as a site of contestation, both historically and now. And thus there is an
* Senior Lecturer, Law School, University of Melbourne; Ph.D. Candidate, Birkbeck, University of
London. The author wishes to thank David Kennedy and the editors of the Journal for the invitation to
participate in the Symposium, Jean-Denis Greze for his astute editing, and Patricia Tuiit, Nathaniel
Bermann, and Peter Fitzpatrick for their generous comments on earlier drafts, as well as Vidya Kumar
and Jeremy Baskin for illuminating conversations on point.
1. CHRISTOPHER WEERAMANTRY, UNIVERSALISING INTERNATIONAL LAW 4 (2004). This is the main-
stream view, if only because of colonialism's conspicuous absence from the dominant discourse.
2. For an exposition of this idea (not an espousal of the position), see John Strawson, Book Review, 5
MELB. U. L. REV. 513 (2004) (reviewing CHRISTOPHER WEERAMANTRY, UNIVERSALISING INTERNA-
TIONAL LAW (2004)).

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