Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law

By Obiora, Leslye | Law & Society Review, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law


Obiora, Leslye, Law & Society Review


Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law. By Antony Anghie. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. 378. f 110.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Leslye Obiora, University of Arizona

Anghie posits imperial interests as the crucible for the improvisation of the norms, structures, and processes that constitute the international rule of law. Identifying the seminal works of Francisco de Vitoria as a watershed that engendered juridical techniques and institutions manifestly appropriated as license to live by plunder, he copiously depicts the chameleonic persistence of Vitorian epochs belied by rituals of innovation in the international legal framework. Exploring the politics that inform the complex of rules refereeing what entities are sovereign and ascribing relevant powers (p. 16), Anghie analyzes the doctrine of sovereignty not merely as a fetish albeit impotent to fetter imperialism, but precisely as a simple expedient contrived to entrench colonial exploitations. Addressing the intimate connection between the doctrine and the question of culture, the author critiques the construction of sovereignty as the intrinsic preserve of a racialized elite simultaneously vested with the prerogative to arbitrate the ripeness (or lack thereof) of competing entities for induction.

In a similar vein, Anghie invokes an array of vivid arguments to demonstrate the contemporary significance of the self-sustaining exclusions that inaugurated the jurisprudential resources of international law as a strategy of European imperialism. Illuminating the ideological and material constraints that predetermine dominations and the dependencies that thwart the substantive self-determination of third world states, he illustrates the incoherence of the axiom of sovereign equality and its corollaries as models of universal applicability. Underscoring a constellation of fictions that reinforce the disparate integration of the third world into the global order, the author chronicles a genius of creativity that legitimizes and perpetuates imperialism as a pervasive constant. Dissecting iterations of the colonial encounter as fossils with discernible imprints of historical shifts in the global political economy that incubate perenniai inequities, Anghie draws on the Mandate System to exemplify the genesis of egregious extremities that precipitated the Rwandan carnage (p. 191). The instructiveness of Anghie's insight into the profound influence of the global political economy on localized violence falters in light of the explanatory force he imputes to ethnicity and racial determinism in lieu of rigorous attention to the objective conditions underlying conflict over resources (p. 206).

The work would have been further enriched had the author turned his piercing gaze to explore, animate, and engage the third world's agency in its own predicament. An undertone of the work suggests an unquestioning embrace of the passivity of the third world that is rather curious. …

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