Dr. Thamil Ananthavinayagan, teaching associate at the University of Nottingham School of Law, compares Russia's invasion of Ukraine to other acts of global imperialism following the Bandung moment...
The world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and the vicious war ravaging the country, forcing millions of people to flee. But is this Russian invasion different than other invasions by a major world power in terms of violations of international law?
It is and it is not. On the one hand, the Russian imperialism in Ukraine in 2022 has contributed to the unification of the Western world, whereas the US imperialism in Iraq in 2003 led to the fragmentation the Western world. Moreover, Russian imperialism has suddenly led to a massive militarization and increase in spending on defense budgets, as seen in Germany. On the other hand, both invasions reveal a commonality: it is about hegemony in law, perpetuated by imperialism.
II. Bandung and Imperialism
For people from the Global South, imperialism was and is the central consideration of international law and is used by the European states to reinforce their power interests. To this end, “the basic paradox within international law meant that it could combine a universalist façade with discriminatory and imperialistic practices.”
The Bandung conference in 1955 constituted a watershed moment of Global South states to build a united front against imperialism. But, against this background, how does Kiev relate to Bandung? Bandung was the birthplace of the Third World Approaches to International Law, and as Makau Mutua has forcefully stated, it was the affirmation against imperialism of any sort. The Communiqué 1955 held:
1. The Asian-African Conference discussed the problems of dependent peoples and colonialism and the evils arising from the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation.
The Conference is agreed:
(a) in declaring that colonialism in all its manifestations is an evil which should speedily be brought to an end;
(b) in affirming that the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation; [emphasis added]
(c) in declaring its support of the cause of freedom and independence for all such peoples, and peoples, and
(d) in calling upon the powers concerned to grant freedom and independence to such peoples.
The key impetus of Bandung was to resist hegemony and the imposition of imperial practices that have dominated the Global South. The Bandung moment has, however, long vanished. Third-world elitism and post-1945 imperialism have manipulated ambitions of the Global South to determine their faith in a self-determined fashion. While Bandung was about depicting the future of third world, the post-spirit of Bandung was a “transnational practice that surfaced owing to interwar political and cultural currents in the Western world.” But the Bandung moment builds the bridge to the current war in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is a violation of the Bandung principles and its sense conveyed solidarity among oppressed people.
Current application of international law does engage in a limited sense of recognition of realities, and “international law has proven generally ineffectual when it comes to checking great powers’ actions.” The vision of genuine peace, which includes the absence of proxy wars, encompasses international cooperation guided by a moral compass to urgently address the Ukrainian situation to eliminate any attempts to capture international law as an intimate goal of hegemony.
III. Hegemony, Wars and the Racialization of the Refugee
The current war in Ukraine reveals the selective preference on international law. It was Anthony Anghie who postulated, “The United States denies imperial ambitions because, it claims, it is not intent on colonizing the Iraqi people but rather, on restoring their sovereignty by guiding them towards self-government.”
The rhetoric of the 2003 invasion is similar to the one in 2022. Former Vice President Cheney said, on the verge of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, “I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” In President Putin’s speech that ushered in the war in 2022, he stated: “The so-called civilised world…prefers to ignore it as if there were none of this horror, genocide that almost four million people are being subjected to.” One wonders where the “liberation” rhetoric was when grave human rights violations occurred in Palestine, Sri Lanka or Mali. Liberation rhetoric under international law (and the civilization doctrine as its requisite) are elements of this law to guide hegemony to manifest their superiority to dominate the very same law. It is hegemonic contestation under international law.
Marti Koskenniemi writes against this background:
By “hegemonic contestation” I mean the process by which international actors routinely challenge each other by invoking legal rules and principles on which they have projected meanings that support their preferences and counteract those of their opponents. In law, political struggle is waged on what legal words such as “aggression,” “self‐determination,” “self‐defence,” “terrorist” or jus cogens mean, whose policy will they include, whose will they oppose. To think of this struggle as hegemonic is to understand that the objective of the contestants is to make their partial view of that meaning appear as the total view, their preference seem like the universal preference.
What both politicians—Cheney and Putin—try to achieve is to portray their partial and selective view as total view of the law. The Trojan horse of international legal language is “humanitarian intervention” to make it palatable to the wider public. But the true vision is hegemony of its own kind. The distortion of the law is the only legitimate way to put an end to what they want the world to see and grasp as violations of international law—and this is imperialistic. Both used the language of international law to suit their power purposes and create a world order that resembles their respective world views. And it is exactly here that Bandung and Kiev meet: the idea of resisting any form of imperialistic practices where international law is used to suit their power interests and visions.
But why does media give more attention to Ukraine? Why are politicians so apt to address the war in Ukraine as opposed to the other wars and conflicts in the world? What about Palestine? What about Sri Lanka? What about Mali? What about Honduras?
One reason is the geographical aspect of the proximity to Eurocentrism. The refugee was tainted in media and politicians. And Russian imperialism has achieved the humanization of the refugee, as within the ecosystem of refugee law the imperialism of the Russian invasion has managed to whitewash—inadvertently—the refugee’s perception to cater to the Eurocentric vision of what a refugee is. The Ukrainian refugees find their place and protection in the Western version of refugee law. As it is written elsewhere: “One journalist described Ukrainians as ‘civilized’ in an attempt to differentiate them from other refugees and others suggested that it’s more difficult to witness the plight of Ukrainians because they ‘look like us.'” The current developments at the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court reveal the bias in a continued vacuum that is present toward peoples from the Global South: the allegedly civilised institutions deem the adjudication of the Western Hemisphere more pressing than the consideration of the world of the so-called uncivilised.
The current war exposes that international law is the law of the powerful. Professor B.S. Chimni wrote: “International law is playing a crucial role in helping legitimise and sustain the unequal structures and processes that manifest themselves in the growing north-south divide. Indeed, international law is the principal language in which domination is coming to be expressed in the era of globalisation.”
Its strength is also its weakness: only the radical reconceptualization as a law rooted in solidarity and anti-hegemonic resistance. In reality, as we have seen, international law is both part of the problem and part of the solution. It conceals the hegemonic goals of the most powerful actors.
In German, international law is referred to as Völkerrecht, translated as “the law of the peoples.” To overcome hegemony and imperialism in international law, this law has to become, in fact, the law of the peoples—a law that is built from the bottom to the top, serving the interests of the many, not the few. To create justice for the people of Bandung, Kiev or elsewhere, we need to orientate toward justice and resistance against imperialism regardless of where it originates. And only this renews the Bandung spirit.
Dr. Thamil Ananthavinayagan is a teaching associate in international human rights law at the University of Nottingham School of Law.
Suggested citation: Thamil Ananthavinayagan, From Bandung to Kiev: Revisiting Imperialism, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 19, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/thamil-ananthavinayagan-russian-imperialism-ukraine/.
This article was prepared for publication by Hayley Behal, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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