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International law, according to the rich and powerful

By Stephen Cheleda - posted Tuesday, 8 April 2008

At present, International Law resembles our National Law as it was prior to World War I.

The rich and the powerful determined what the law should be during the period leading up to the middle of the 19th century. They did not necessarily have malevolent intent. It simply reflected a view, that they knew how the world functioned and how best to conduct the affairs of the country.

An example of this was when six agricultural labourers from Dorset, UK, were sentenced to seven years transportation to a penal colony to Australia in 1834 for the temerity of trying to organise a trade union in order to improve their meagre earnings. Another example is the very limited franchise at the time. Not only was the franchise restricted to relatively few individuals - usually to those who owned some property - females were denied the vote altogether.


This overbearing, patrician approach to our internal laws gradually unravelled in the aftermath of World War I, and especially after World War II. Our national laws now reflect more and more the wishes and aspirations of all citizens.

There is one exception. The government alone controls international security. To some extent this is understandable because of the complexities of modern defence which relies heavily on complex technology. However, international security has an influence on all our lives, not least because of the rising cost of oil and the huge cost of any military interventions which can affect many countries other than ones directly involved in military activities. Therefore, there are increasing conflicts regarding the application of International Law.

International Law, as embodied in the Charter of the United Nations, is controlled and interpreted by the rich and powerful nations (the five Permanent Members of the Security Council) largely for their own benefit.

Franklin D.Roosevelt, one of the chief architects of the UN, clearly stated that the UN was “a trusteeship of the powerful”. People belonging to smaller nations are either sidelined or are greatly influenced by perceived interests of the major powers. The events that happened in Rwanda, or are happening now in Burma, in the Congo, in Darfur, in Kosovo or in Palestine, are examples of this.

The current application of international law is gradually becoming untenable. Among the various tensions created around the world, it encourages the increasing acquisition of armaments by smaller nations. Article 51 of the Charter of the UN specifically states that (member states) have the “right to individual or collective self-defence”. The five Permanent Members attributed great importance to this article.

There are plenty of examples of smaller nations exercising this right. The purchase of £20 billions of armaments by Saudi Arabia during the Thatcher government was expressly justified by quoting this Article. The recent purchase of extensive military capability by Indonesia which may only be intended for defensive purposes, nonetheless causes great concern in Australia, which regards it as a possible threat to its trading routes.


Should we acquiesce with the current interpretation and control of international law, or can something be done to bring international law more in tune with the wishes of other nations besides the five Permanent Members? We have to remember that the Permanent Members claim that in an uncertain world, everyone has to be more vigilant and arm themselves accordingly. But are they themselves responsible for this uncertainty?

There is a wealth of data that highlights the causes of violent conflicts, and the need to revise the Charter of the United Nations.

All the studies show that conflicts essentially develop where there is an absence or denial of the ability to access, to analyse, to synthesise and to disseminate information freely. In other words, where there is lack of academic, judicial or media independence (for whatever reason) there is a potential for conflict. Also, the absence or the denial of social progress, either for individuals, or for groups, or for society as a whole can lead to violence. (Social progress can be perceived as attaining material or professional status.)

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About the Author

Stephen Cheleda was born in Budapest in 1938 and has lived in the UK since December 1956. After working in industry, he became a teacher of Mathematics in 1971. Stephen did an MA in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. He retired in 2003.

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