The Danish Peace Academy

The Future of International Law

John Avery, H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen

During the spring of 2003, our television and newspapers presented us with the spectacle of an attack by two technologically superior powers on a much less industrialized nation, a nation with an ancient and beautiful culture. The ensuing war was one-sided. Missiles guided by laser beams and signals from space satellites were more than a match for less sophisticated weapons. Speeches were made to justify the attack. It was said to be needed because of weapons of mass destruction (some countries are allowed to have them, others not). It was said to be necessary to get rid of a cruel dictator (whom the attacking powers had previously supported and armed). But the suspicion remained that the invasion was resource-motivated. It was about oil. The whole scene was somehow familiar. Have we seen this sort of thing before? Yes, we certainly have!

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the continually accelerating development of science and science-based industries produced the phenomenon of colonialism. The rapid development in technology in the west opened an enormous gap in military strength between the industrialized nations and those that remained primarily agricultural. Taking advantage of their superior weaponry, the advanced industrialized countries rapidly carved the remainder of the world into colonies, which acted as sources of raw materials and food, and as markets for manufactured goods.

In North America, the native Indian population proved vulnerable to European diseases, such as smallpox. (Lord Geoffrey Amherst recommended that smallpox-infected blankets should be given to the Indians). Those Indians that survived European diseases were driven westward by the firearms of immigrants arriving from Europe. The fate of the Indians in Central and South America was similar.

In Africa and Asia too, the superior weapons of the European countries overpowered agricultural and pastoral societies. Often the industrialized nations made their will felt by means of naval bombardments: In 1854, Commodore Perry and an American fleet forced Japan to accept foreign traders by threatening to bombard Tokyo. In 1856, British warships bombarded Canton in China. In 1864, a force of European and American warships bombarded Choshu in Japan, causing a revolution. In 1882, Alexandria was bombarded, and in 1896, Zanzibar.

Between 1800 and 1914, the percentage of the earth’s surface under European domination increased from 35 % to 85 %, if former colonies are included. The period of colonial expansion between 1880 and 1914 was filled with tensions, as the industrial powers raced to arm themselves in competition with each other, and raced to seize as much as possible of the rest of the world. This rivalry contributed to the outbreak of the First World War, to which the Second World War can be seen as a sequel.

With the founding of the United Nations at the end of the Second World War, a system of international law was set up to replace the unrestrained use of military force in international relations. Chapter 1, Article 2.3 of the United Nations Charter requires that “All members shall settle their disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace, security and justice shall not be endangered.” In the same chapter, Article 2.4 requires that “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state…”

Law is a mechanism for achieving equality. Under law, the weak and the powerful are equal. It is only natural that extremely powerful nations should be opposed to international law, since it is a curb on their power. One of the basic purposes of the United Nations is to make war illegal, and if war is illegal, the powerful and weak are on equal footing, much to the chagrin of the powerful. How can one establish or maintain an empire if war is forbidden? The United Nations Charter challenges imperialism, and under it the developing nations have one by one achieved their independence.

However, the United Nations Charter itself is being challenged by the world’s only remaining superpower, and colonialism is returning in a new form. This development is of special concern to scientists, because science and technology are being cynically used to produce the gap in weaponry that makes one country a superpower and another not. The remaining countries of the world have a choice, and a responsibility. Will they allow progress towards a just system of international law to be undermined? Will they allow the authority of the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations to be challenged? Will they allow the development of International Criminal Court to be blocked? Will they allow themselves to be made into colonies?


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