It is no longer possible to claim that international law is supreme and that it applies to everyone equally.
The mask that has long concealed the true nature and objective of “international law”, the supposed foundation of the current world order, has finally fallen. As cries for help from Palestinians in Gaza go unanswered, the grim truth comes to light: international justice, more often than not, is used as a tool to advance imperial interests, not justice.
This truth, of course, has long been known to anyone who has examined, even cursorily, the history of imperialism, from the European rush to Africa to the more recent U.S. interventions in Latin America, and who followed how this dark past helped shape the way the world functions today.
Of course, at first glance, international law seems to be a noble concept, promoting peace, the universal application of human rights, cooperation and justice among nations. However, if one scratches the surface a little, another narrative emerges, shaped by the ghosts of past imperialism.
Just look at how international law was eagerly used, and still is, to defend, care for and bring justice to the Ukrainian people in the face of Russian aggression. Now compare with how the same laws, norms and principles have been reduced to mere footnotes and suggestions in the West’s response to the ongoing Israeli assault on the Palestinians. It is clear that the West, led by the United States, only advocates respect for international law and the rules-based global order when it suits its agenda.
How did we get there ?
For centuries, colonial expansion and exploitation, driven by a thirst for resources and geopolitical domination, defined the history of the West. A handful of European states divided the world between them, conquering territories, stealing resources, brutally subjugating and enslaving people. Throughout this period of colonial rule, Western states acted as if sovereignty and self-determination were their natural rights and privileges and those of no one else.
The two world wars, which devastated the European powers and accelerated the deterioration of their control over most of their colonial territories, disrupted this unjust and untenable status quo.
In the late 1940s, as European states struggled to rebuild and national independence movements in Africa and beyond gained momentum, a new rules-based international order began to take hold. form and concepts such as human rights and the right to self-determination of nations began to be codified into law. With the creation of the United Nations and the establishment of bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council, the illusion was created that these new rules applied to everyone – both to the powerful Western states and their (former) colonies – equally and permanently.
While ostensibly promoting the idea of national sovereignty and human rights, Western powers continued to control, steal, and exploit other nations. They began to use this new “rules-based” order to covertly pursue their colonial policies and hinder similar efforts by their rivals. An early 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 the early 1950s. When the results did not serve the interests Imperial forces, the United States and the United Kingdom launched Operation Ajax.
The United States also wreaked havoc in Latin America throughout the second half of the 20th century, overthrowing democratically elected governments, arming murderous militias, and supporting dictators sympathetic to its agenda. Not only were they never sanctioned for these actions that blatantly violated international law, ridiculed the concept of national sovereignty, and violated the basic human rights of millions of people, as Operation Condor illustrates.
The continued siege of Gaza under Operation Iron Saber and its support from the Western world is the latest – and perhaps most obvious – example of the hypocrisy at its heart of international law.
Israel, which has illegally occupied Palestinian land and subjected Palestinians to apartheid for decades, now maintains more than two million Palestinians, half of them children, under a total blockade in Gaza and bombs them indiscriminately.
Faced with such flagrant violations of international law and the declared intention to commit many more, how have the Western leaders of the international community, self-proclaimed defenders of human rights around the world, reacted?
They announced their unwavering support for Israel.
The region’s strategic location, rich in oil and gas reserves, has historically served as a magnet, attracting the attention of those seeking to secure their energy interests, and has historically influenced Western policies in the region. Before 1948, the Iraq-Petroleum Company’s oil interests stretched from Kirkuk, Iraq, to Haifa, Palestine. Today, it is the interests of Chevron and British Petroleum in the development of natural gas in the Mediterranean. These may not be the only reasons, but they are important variables to consider when understanding current geopolitical positions. The parallels between historical events and contemporary actions are striking. The Palestinian question has long served as a brake on these imperial ambitions and they now see it as an opportunity to dictate their own final solution.
Today, the mask has fallen.
Western powers can no longer claim that “international law” is supreme and that it applies to everyone in the same way. While they shamelessly greenlight an illegal and inhumane assault on Gaza, they cannot prevent conscientious citizens around the world from questioning the integrity of the international legal system and challenging the notion that it is He 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 only 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 can truly uphold the principles of fairness, equality and respect for the rights of all nations, regardless of their size or geopolitical importance.
Only by recognizing the true nature of international law and its utter uselessness in providing justice to peoples who attempt to resist imperial domination can we hope to dismantle the current world order and begin to build a world where justice will prevail over power and where humanity will triumph over politics. It is a daunting task, but 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 all and does not is not used as a weapon by powerful states against their rivals.
About the Author
Wesam Ahmad is Palestinian and a human rights defender with the NGO Al-Haq in Ramallah, Palestine.
Translated by: AFPS