International law seems biased against Third World countries

Is international law really cut out to address the interests of anyone that does not belong to the First World? Increasingly, this is a question that I have been asking myself in light of the ongoing, merciless massacre of Palestinians by the State of Israel.

On the face of it, it should be clear that the events of October 7, 2023, could not possibly be proportionally dealt with through the retaliatory attacks that we continue to witness, and that international law should already proscribe the solution needed. But a deeper glance at the international legal order seems to reflect that everything is in fact going according to plan.

Let us first consider the beginnings of what we have come to know as the United Nations. The organisation was founded in 1945, a rebranding of the League of Nations, and immediately after the Second World War. At this time, a great number of States in the Third World had yet to gain their independence.

The entire African continent, for instance, was represented by Liberia and Ethiopia, which at the time were the only states not under occupation. And indeed, when it was time for other nations from the third world to gain their independence and join the UN, the doctrine of tabula rasa was invoked, which basically prohibits new states from retaliating against their former colonisers if they are to be accepted into the international community. This sort of doctrine could only be the creation of a dominant culture against a submissive one, a system that remains to date.

As a result of the Second World War – even though the conversation had begun much earlier – it was during this very same period that the creation of the State of Israel was considered and implemented. This is where the international legal system begins to become questionable, at least in this context, as it seems dubious to have a set of countries decide for others what new territories may exist upon them and continue to implement the same.

For Palestine and the larger Arab World, the decision of the West to have the Israeli State created prompted grave retaliation, with the First Arab-Israeli War taking place in 1948 to challenge this decision. One would imagine – or blindly believe – that an international system where all parties are equal would not lead to such an imposition.

Returning to the question of conflict and who gets to wage it, it is only understandable that the Palestinian people continue to resist what to them feels like an occupation, and to resort to violent means to do so as a last option after decades of repression. However, looking at the reaction of the Western powers to the Hamas offensive of October 7, one would be led to believe that international law only exists as a punitive measure against the Third World, as opposed to being an equal arbiter regardless of power.

The preliminary decision of the International Court of Justice in January only further reinforces this idea, as following its findings that Israel is in breach of the Genocide Convention, multiple Western powers have gone on to withdraw their support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

It is unconscionable that even the simple recognition of Palestine as a State, when it de facto existed as such prior to 1948, is a debatable diplomatic issue, based on the allegiance of states. It is even more confounding that the taking of hundreds of thousands of lives can be treated with neutrality at best, with states mildly chastising Israel for the ongoing massacre.

For those of us in the Third World, it is imperative that we recall our own liberation struggles, which until not too long ago were considered to be terrorist acts until history was rewritten post-independence. Our struggles as formerly colonised peoples are one with those of the Palestinians, and our view of what actions they are taking must also be one with theirs. In this way, we can build solidarity that will lead to liberation rather than siding with a system that does little to side with us if not for its own interests.

Ms Njahira is a researcher on gender and its effects in society