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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: December 2009

3 - Dispossession and the purposes of international law


Over a period of 400 years following the conquest of Mexico there was a progressive retreat from conceding sovereign rights to particular non-European peoples. During this time international law had the major role of defining the normative foundations of the global society of states created by the expansion of Europe. It defined and codified the terms for membership in the society of states. It marked the boundaries between those who belonged to the society and those that did not. Those that did formed a moral community bound by mutually agreed rules of conduct. And fundamental to this community was the idea that its members were not obliged to treat non-members according to the norms that applied to relations between themselves. It was consequently a form of cultural imperialism that served to aid and to justify Europeans in subjugating non-Europeans and dispossessing them of their lands and other rights. International law can for these reasons, be seen as a ‘universalising discourse’ that simultaneously sought to include and exclude some but not all non-Europeans. It was universalising because the rules and norms it codified were intended to have universal application, but by setting the terms for inclusion in international society according to European standards it necessarily excluded many non-Europeans. From the vantage-point of the early twenty-first century it is easy to criticise international law for having been insensitive, even oblivious to other cultures and mores.

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