History of the north-south divide in international law: colonial discourses, sovereignty, and self-determination

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International law is a product of an evolutionary process that has been in effect since the dawn of history. An examination of its historic origin, subsequent development, and contemporary manifestation reveals the decisive influence of asymmetric power and economic inequality in shaping its normative standards and direction. It is this quest for power and economic clout that has resulted in conflicts of competing interests dubbed variously over history as “civilized” and “primitive,” “west” and “east,” “developed” and “developing,” and “clash of civilizations.” This division is currently called the North–South divide, in reference to geostrategic and economic power imbalances, including the digital divide in the context of technology. The “North” is a group of developed, industrialized, and technologically advanced states, often known as the First World, and the “South” represents developing, least developed, and technologically impoverished states, also called the Third World. International relations are littered with conflicts of interest between these two groups. The root of this North–South divide lies in the very creation, nature, features, and orientation of international law from its antiquity to the present context. This chapter is an historic account of the genesis, conceptual justification, and metamorphosis of the North–South divide in a number of areas of international law, including international environmental law. It highlights certain historic international events and features that have contributed to the skewing of international law toward the North. Although the North–South divide confronts increasing challenges from emerging new powers and players (the media and NGOs) calling for the reconfiguration of the balance of power and distributive justice to bridge the divide, its dominant role continues unabated in the twenty-first century. International Law Justifying Colonialism: Seeds of the North–South Divide International law dates back prior to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, when the law of nations required no particular form of societal/political organization to become an international entity and actor. The constituting elements of international law in antiquity were communities, tribes, peoples, and individuals, which enjoyed sovereignty, rights, duties, and international legal personality. Their intersocietal diplomatic relations shaped classical international law.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational environmental law and the global South
EditorsShawkat Alam, Sumudu Atapattu, Carmen G. Gonzalez, Jona Razzaque
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherCambridge University Press (CUP)
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781107295414
ISBN (Print)9781316352113, 9781107055698, 9781316621042
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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