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Legacies of war and empire



Moot Court Room
Old College
South Bridge


Thu 10 October 2019

The Edinburgh Centre for International and Global Law presents

Legacies of War and Empire - New Work in the History of International Law Part 2


This roundtable will bring together scholars working in the history of international law, with a particular focus on the legacies of empires and of war for the structure of international law and for contemporary international legal norms.


Dr Boyd van Dijk, Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Amsterdam

Making Common Article 3 in Southeast Asia: A Third World Approach to the 1949 Geneva Conventions

Most scholars agree that modern empires framed their colonial wars as ‘emergencies’ in order to escape international scrutiny. After 1945, however, those same imperial powers invited the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to intervene in their wars of decolonization, despite resisting an official state of war. This article seeks to solve this puzzle by drawing attention to the ICRC’s critical part in reshaping the international legal system for colonial war in the critical years before the Algerian War and the Bandung Conference. In this formative period, the organization played, together with anti-colonial activists, a transformative role in contesting accepted ideas of global governance and international law while providing a new stage for anticolonial resistance, with far-reaching consequences not just for the ICRC’s own institutional future, but also for the legitimization of postcolonial sovereignty in the twentieth century.


Dr Megan Donaldson, Lecturer in International Law, University College London

The Afterlife of François de Callières: Secrecy, Espionage and the Ethos of Diplomacy

The paper examines a crucial turning point in the evolving relationship between espionage and diplomacy: interwar efforts to rehabilitate diplomacy from widespread critiques of its imbrication with secrecy and deception. It shows that writings by and for diplomats in the 1920s and 30s sought to shift moral concern from the secrecy of diplomacy as such to deceptive dealings; and then to distance diplomacy from deception. These interwar writings on diplomacy had surprising longevity, remaining leading references well after WWII. Moreover, they illustrate an enduring pattern in which the practice of espionage is rhetorically excluded from diplomacy, while the boundary between diplomacy and espionage remains undefined. Diplomacy can thus be presented as a practice of peace and conciliation, or as liberal bargaining, softening the sharper edges of hierarchy. Yet in instances like Australia’s recording of the East Timorese cabinet during crucial treaty negotiations, it becomes clear how closely espionage and diplomacy are intertwined—and how profoundly this complex of activities, once seen outside a Cold War contest of superpowers—accentuates rather than palliates inequality.


Dr Rotem Giladi, Teaching Fellow in International Law, Edinburgh Law School

Approaching Colonial War: Law, Culture, and the Case of Human Heads

The paper starts with the observation that while there can be little doubt about the existence of an international law category of ‘colonial war’ in the late nineteenth century, establishing its content, contours, boundaries, and intellectual foundations proves highly elusive. The resulting indeterminacy of the category operates, then, both doctrinally and epistemologically. Historiographically, in addition, it leaves us with a highly impoverished, even distorted, account of the origins and politics of the modern laws of war. While we know that the codification of the laws of war was central to the modern international law project of the late 1800s, we know little on how the development of the laws of war was linked to the legal structuring of empire and colonialism, another central concerns of that generation’s international lawyers. The paper suggests next that the very elusiveness of colonial war, rather than an obstacle to be overcome, may itself serve as a source of meaning. Here I propose, tentatively, approaching colonial war not as a set of indeterminate, uncertain, unstable, or contradictory norms but, instead, as a register of cultural practices that together may furnish an alternative historical account of the laws of war its operation, function, and preoccupation. To illustrate the utility of this approach, I last reflect on a series of anecdotes involving the fate of human heads— cultural artefacts present in colonial battlefields, diplomatic conferences, private homes, popular culture, and public debates—and explore their potential meanings.


Dr Inge van Hulle, Assistant Professor, Tilburg Law School

Benevolent Aggression and Exemplary Violence in West Africa (1807-1885)

This paper represents one of the first attempts to elaborate on the international legal framework that surrounded the practice of imperial use of force in an African context during the early and mid-nineteenth century, prior to the Scramble for Africa. I first discuss the context in which violence was used as an imperial strategy and highlight the particular environmental conditions in which military campaigns took place in West Africa. I then elaborate on the justifications that British imperial personnel resorted to in their use of force and that became accepted practice in British imperial international law. Violence, though inherently part of a policy of aggression, was often styled as ‘benevolent’: as a form of racialised necessity; as an extension of Britain’s humanitarian agenda or as a supposedly legitimate answer to a perceived African wrong-doing. Apart from forced interventions, Britain actively pursued the acquisition of a monopoly over the exercise of violence in frontier regions by pursuing a policy of mediation in inter-African disputes, imprisonment of so-called African ‘rebels’ and disarmament of neighbouring African states in order to safeguard trade. As British presence in West Africa increased during the second half of the nineteenth century so did imperial agents’ resort to violence. Force thus became a method through which British strategic objectives could be fulfilled by coercing African rulers into accepting the premises of British imperial international law.


Dr Cait Storr, Lecturer in Law, University of Glasgow Law School

International Status, Imperial Form: Nauru and the Histories of International Law

This chapter is the introduction to a forthcoming monograph, International Status, Imperial

Form: Nauru and the Histories of International Law. The book draws on theories of jurisdiction and bureaucracy to construct a detailed sociolegal account of the relationship between international status and administraive form in the Nauruan case, as a frame through which to examine how the twentieth century international order developed in continuaion of European imperial administrative practices of the late nineteenth century. It argues that as the international status of Nauru shifted from protectorate, to mandate, to trust territory, to sovereign state, what occurred at the level of local administration was an accretive process of internal bureaucratisation and external restatement according to the prevailing concepts of the period. It concludes that shiftss in international status toward political independence are better understood as marking not the end, but the beginning of the process of decolonisation.