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In 1917, the October Revolution and the adoption of the revolutionary Mexican Constitution shook the foundations of the international order and international law in profound, unprecedented and lasting ways. The Mexican and Russian revolutions posed fundamental challenges to the still embryonic profession of international law, its practitioners then largely committed to various forms of liberalism and capitalism. In bringing the ‘social question’ to the forefront of international legal debates, the Mexican and Russian revolutions offered new ways of thinking about foundational concepts of property, statehood and non-intervention – and indeed about the very nature of law itself.
Turning to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points as the starting point for self-determination in international law has become part of the received wisdom of the field. In a 2017 article, Lauri Mälksoo examined the relationship between the liberal-Wilsonian and the socialist-Bolshevik conceptualisations of self-determination, rejecting the idea that the Bolsheviks contributed at all to the international right of self-determination. In his account, the right is an intrinsically liberal one, concerned with the ‘extension of human freedom from individuals to peoples’.
In 1917, the October Revolution and the adoption of the revolutionary Mexican Constitution shook the foundations of the international order in profound, unprecedented and lasting ways. These events posed fundamental challenges to international law, unsettling foundational concepts of property, statehood and non-intervention, and indeed the very nature of law itself. This collection asks what we might learn about international law from analysing how its various sub-fields have remembered, forgotten, imagined, incorporated, rejected or sought to manage the revolutions of 1917. It shows that those revolutions had wide-ranging repercussions for the development of laws relating to the use of force, intervention, human rights, investment, alien protection and state responsibility, and for the global economy subsequently enabled by international law and overseen by international institutions. The varied legacies of 1917 play an ongoing role in shaping political struggle in the form of international law.
The end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations did not signal the end of ‘civilisation’. In fact, one of the most famous and prolonged legal battles of the Cold War period, the South West Africa saga, was fought over the the justiciability and content of the ‘sacred trust of civilisation’. This chapter offers a close reading of a wide range of materials regarding the clash between critics and supporters of apartheid in front of the International Court of Justice. In so doing, it maps the gradual domestication of the Applicants’ case from a detailed exposition of racial capitalism in Namibia to a narrow condemnation of apartheid as being discriminatory against ‘exceptional’ black individuals. Finally, by detailing the process that led to Namibia’s independence, the chapter shows the heavy influence of international law and international actors in safeguarding the interests of white settlers and transnational capital in the country through the usage of constitutional law and human rights.
This short final chapter summarises the main arguments of the book with a particular emphasis on the law’s indeterminacy and its relation to structural bias. The author argues that apart from evidencing the law’s total openness, the constant oscillation of ‘civilisation’ between ‘improvement’ and ‘biology’ in fact evidences its links to the contradictions of global capitalism. As a consequence, the structured indeterminacy of ‘civilisation’ can be useful to actors who accept the basic desirability of capitalism, but it can be profoundly damaging to radical projects.
This chapter analyses the colonial branch of the League of Nations, the Mandate System, and its pivotal role in the transmission and reconfiguration of ‘civilisation’ between the two world wars. Focusing on the workings of the Permanent Mandates Commission, it documents how ‘civilisation’ developed a rich institutional life and became an important argumentative tool for those both supporting and opposing the emancipation of Iraq from the British Mandate. Emphasising both transformation and continuity, this chapter examines the administrative and bureaucratic turn of the ‘standard of civilisation’ and the ways it became entangled with practices of counting, reporting and standard-setting. Furthermore, the rise of a basic level of welfarism as a marker of the ‘civilised state’ indicates that the ‘logic of improvement’ is not static, but it evolves in response to the changing imperatives and ideals of the capitalist state. The case of Iraq shows that even though international law does not determine imperial interests or major political evolutions, it does nonetheless provide a vocabulary to articulate and contest them.
Nineteenth-century international lawyers inherited a discipline in flux and inhabited a world of rapid change. As capitalism entered a period of crisis and Western imperial adventures intensified, the first generation of professional international lawyers grappled with the need to construct order. The ‘standard of civilisation’ arose as a disciplinary response to the contradictions of global capitalism. This chapter provides a detailed account of the contours of the ‘logic of biology’ and the ‘logic of improvement’. It details both the constant presence of racialised, gendered and infantilising tropes in the writings of the discipline’s ‘fathers’ and their insistence that capitalist modernity was the only path to civilisation and, by implication, to equal rights and duties under international law. The struggles over extraterritoriality demonstrate the concrete stakes of these theoretical constructions as well as the role of semi-peripheral lawyers who adopted and transformed ‘civilisation’ in order to serve the interests of their own domestic ruling classes.