Demystifying the neo-colonialism of international law

by | 19 Dec 2023

@ShahdAbusalama (Twitter)

Colonialism—a modern form of imperialism—emerged in the sixteenth century, after the Spanish and Portuguese occupation of South America. Colonialism involves a state occupying a territory and exploiting its resources (natural and human) for the purpose of extracting and transferring capital. Unlike many prior forms of imperialism, colonialism interweaves profit-driven exploitation with oppression of a colonized population, at times including ethnic cleansing. Also unlike many previous forms of imperialism, colonialism is intertwined with a “civilizational mission” based on an ideology of universalism and superiority. Since it is a war against a civilian population, colonialism often entails military rule over colonized peoples. There are, of course, different types and varied histories of colonialism. Whereas colonialism proper seeks to exploit the indigenous population, settler-colonialism seeks to eliminate the indigenous population. Simply put, colonialism is the systematic oppression of people, occupation of land, and exploitation of resources.

Colonialism is not a subject of the past, to be studied as a lesson for the present. Instead, it is part of our everyday reality. While colonizers of preceding centuries did not hide their colonialism, today’s neo-colonial states—to use Jean-Paul Sartre’s terminologymystify their colonialism. The twentieth-century period that is described erroneously as “decolonization” was not a shift from colonial to “post-colonial” states, but rather a shift from colonialism to neo-colonialism. The category of neo-colonialism reflects the perspectives of many people in the global South who experience neo-colonialism as extending prior forms of colonialism. States mystify their neo-colonialism using various techniques, including distortion and branding. Neo-colonial states rebranded the nineteenth-century colonial “civilizing mission” with purportedly “universal” values. For instance, neo-colonial states distort the profit motives of the military industrial complex by branding themselves as “spreading democracy.” Other neo-colonial distortions and brandings include “national security” and “humanitarian intervention.” With approximately 800 military bases in more than 85 countries, the United States is the largest neo-colonial power today; the U.S. occupation of Iraq is an example of U.S. neo-colonialism. Understanding neo-colonialism is crucial for understanding both the contemporary international legal system and decolonial theory. 

Colonial and neo-colonial international law

In the modern era, colonial governance and the colonial “civilizing mission” shaped international law. Since colonial governance entailed violence against colonized peoples, nineteenth-century international legal actors developed international law for application to their states and their armies—not to the colonized peoples who lacked both states and armies. (Indeed, nineteenth-century governments promoted international laws of war to protect combatants from civilians challenging state power.) Just as nineteenth century colonizers explicitly differentiated between “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples, various colonial legal actors alleged that “savages” have lawless warfare practices because they do not differentiate between combatants and non-combatants. In reality, of course, colonizers did not differentiate between combatants and non-combatants because colonialism entailed the violent subjugation of civilians. By delegitimizing non-state violence as “uncivilized,” colonial legal actors reinforced the sovereignty of the colonial state and undermined anti-colonial resistance. 

The shift from colonialism to neo-colonialism is evident in the contemporary international legal system’s mystification of neo-colonial violence. Contemporary international law continues to propagate the myth that state violence is a priori legitimate and non-state violence is a priori illegitimate. The nineteenth-century international legal classification of “uncivilized warfare” has been rebranded in the contemporary notion of “terrorism.” Indeed, global North condemnations of “terrorism” cannot be disentangled from the colonial notion of “uncivilized” violence. Neo-colonial states brand their violence under slogans of “national security” or “war on terror” or even “humanitarian intervention.” Althought they depict their violence as proportionate and legitimate, neo-colonial states use the same forms of violence that they claim are “terrorism” and with greater frequency. Indeed, neo-colonial states inflate fears of “terrorism” to distort their proportionately superior violence and oppression of neo-colonized peoples. Notably, non-state groups are generally incapable of perpetrating systemic violence or genocide because they lack the technical capacity to do so. Similarly, anti-colonial groups usually do not have an objective of annihilating their colonizers, but rather decolonizing their societies. Simply put, neo-colonial states are exponentially more destructive than the anti-colonial groups that resist them. In spite of that, the international legal system distorts neo-colonial violence. Although the United Nations has not adopted a legal definition of “terrorism”—primarily because of definitional conflicts with liberation and self-determination struggles—contemporary international law prohibits an abstract notion of “terrorism.” Contemporary international law also proscribes an ambiguous notion of “excess state violence” (i.e., genocide or war crimes). In between armed resistance of non-state groups and “excess state violence” is a significant source of violence: the mundane, daily violence of the state. Consequently, contemporary international law mystifies the systemic and daily violence of neo-colonial states.   

Colonialism and neo-colonialism: the case of Zionism

The historical transmutation of colonialism into neo-colonialism is evident in the history of a colonial ideology intertwined with modern international law: Zionism. When the Zionist movement began in the nineteenth century, Zionists announced their colonial ambitions in the fundraising efforts of the Jewish Colonization Association (established in 1891 in London) and the Jewish Colonial Trust (established in 1899 in London). Often identified as the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl (d. 1904) wrote in The Jewish State (1896), “Should the Powers declare themselves willing to admit our sovereignty over a neutral piece of land, then the Society will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land. Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentine. In both countries important experiments in colonization have been made, though on the mistaken principle of a gradual infiltration of Jews” (p. 12). Throughout this text, Herzl referred to Zionists as colonists. A little over one decade after Herzl’s death, the 1917 Balfour Declaration passed the baton of British colonialism in Palestine to Zionist colonialism. Zionist thinker Vladimir Jabotinsky (d. 1940) wrote in The Iron Wall (1923), “Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population–an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.” The iron wall to which Jabotinsky referred was the military imposition of colonialism. In 1947, the UN General Assembly validated Zionist colonialism by adopting a partition plan (Resolution 181) that granted 56% of Palestine to Zionists, who were a minority in comparison to the indigenous Palestinians. Thus, international law legitimated Zionist colonialism.

Nearly simultaneously, numerous global South societies sought and gradually obtained formal “independence” from colonial states. As previously noted, the ostensible transformation of colonialism into “post-colonial nationalism” was actually a transition into neo-colonialism. As the nineteenth-century form of colonialism became unfashionable or untenable, Zionists increasingly and incrementally rebranded themselves as a nationalist movement. That is, Zionists exploited nationalist discourse and European antisemitism to distort their neo-colonialism, manifest in their settler-colonization of Palestine. In 1948, Zionists ethnically cleansed Palestine by massacring thousands of Palestinians, expelling more than 750,000 Palestinians, and destroying more than 530 Palestinian villages. Although in 1948 it recognized a Palestinian right to return and reparations (Resolution 194), in 1949, the United Nations admitted Israel as a member state, distorting it as a “peace-loving State” and ignoring its ethnic cleansing and occupation of 78% of historic Palestine. This international legal recognition facilitated the branding of Israel as a “democracy.” International law thereby mystified Zionist neo-colonialism.

International law, violence, and Zionist colonialism

As with earlier forms of colonialism, international law distorts systemic Zionist neo-colonial violence. In the decades that followed the establishment of Israel, neo-colonial violence continued with military rule over Palestinians, military incursions in neighboring states, occupation, displacement, periodic massacres, collective punishment, and systemic oppression. Like earlier forms of colonialism, Zionist neo-colonialism was profitable, particularly after the 1967 occupations, which were prohibited formally by international law (UN Resolution 242). Just as the notion of “post-colonial states” mystifies neo-colonialism, “post-colonial” international law mystifies neo-colonial violence. Responding to “post-colonial” demands, in 1983, UN General Assembly resolution 38/17 officially granted a right of self-determination and armed resistance against colonialism. Concurrently, Israel profited enormously from branding its neo-colonial violence as “counterterrorism.” Pursuing the model of a “post-colonial state” (i.e., a state subjected to neo-colonialism) and utilizing the language of international law, the Oslo Accords (1993) facilitated Israel’s criminalization of Palestinian resistance and rendered a corrupt gang as the sub-contractors of Zionist colonialism. International law has facilitated both the colonialization and neo-colonialization of Palestine.

Along with the burgeoning of international law, Zionist colonialism has become more violent over time, buttressed by the invention of a wide array of colonial technologies. In the name of “national security,” Israel turned the West Bank into an open-air prison and Gaza into a concentration camp subjected to inhumane conditions of food deprivation, a restrictive blockade, and periodic massacres. In 2018, Palestinians imprisoned in the Gaza concentration camp—more than 80% of whom are refugees expelled by Zionists in the twentieth century—began the “great march of return” to the prison fence, demanding their purported international legal rights. Israel responded to the peaceful march by brutally targeting children, disabled people, paramedics, and journalists. The neo-colonial Zionist state distorts anti-colonial resistance (unarmed or armed) as “terrorism” and distorts its own disproportionate violence as “self-defense.” There have been virtually no international legal repercussions since the beginning of Zionist colonialism. The first indication that the international legal system might address systemic colonial violence appeared in 2022, with UN General Assembly Resolution 77/247, requesting that the International Court of Justice investigate “the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Given the history of international law relating to Palestine and Palestinians, there is reason to be skeptical. The largest neo-colonial power today, the United States, has consistently prevented punitive application of international law against its settler-colonial project (Israel). To someone subjected to inhumane conditions and systemic colonial state violence, contemporary international law must look like smoke and mirrors. It must look like mystification of neo-colonialism.

Neo-colonial genocide: Palestine today

In the nineteenth century and now, the distinction between “civilized” versus “uncivilized” violence is a myth that occludes colonialism. Today, the neo-colonial Zionist state is again committing intentional genocide against the indigenous Palestinians, again misrepresenting Palestinian resistance, and again inflicting violence that it would describe as “terrorism” if it were perpetrated by a non-state group or an enemy state. Israeli government officials openly admit that they are denying food, water, electricity, and fuel to the civilian population and that their objective is to eliminate Gaza. The neo-colonial state has murdered approximately 25,000 civilians, displaced nearly two million people, and decimated Gaza’s infrastructure rendering it uninhabitable. Since early October 2023, the neo-colonial state has arrested thousands and killed hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank. The neo-colonial state is responsible for raping, torturing, denying food and water to Palestinian hostages. The neo-colonial state’s sponsor (the United States) continues to supply Israel with seemingly endless weapons and absurd claims of “self-defense.” Nearly two months after the genocide began, the UN General Assembly called for a ceasefire and United Nations officials are calling for a war crimes investigation. Yet again, international legal actors focus on exceptional violence and ignore systemic violence. 

Both exceptional and systemic violence are manifestations of sovereignty and territory. The contemporary international legal system mystifies neo-colonial violence to protect neo-colonial sovereignty and territory. The back-and-forth of international institutions sometimes recognizing, while rarely enforcing, the rights of colonized peoples does not reflect struggles within the international legal system. Instead, the international legal system distorts the systemic violence of the colonial sovereign to mystify neo-colonialism. International law does not provide a legal process for ending colonial sovereignty or for re-inhabiting lost territory. Those who believe in the potential of the contemporary international legal order should rise to the occasion and decolonize the system by articulating a means for ending Zionist colonialism. And if they cannot do so, then they should recognize that the contemporary international legal system is merely an instrument of neo-colonial mystification.

From a decolonial perspective, it is important to understand that Palestine is simultaneously a synecdoche for a broader transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism and for a greater divergence between the global North and global South. In the global South, there is a broad consensus that Israel is a settler-colonial state imposing oppressive and systemic violence against Palestinians. In comparison, for the most part, the global North is still stuck in the nineteenth century, making false allegations of “unintentional” versus “deliberate” violence. Global North states continue to participate in the mystification of Zionist neo-colonialism. While colonized and indigenous peoples in the global South have long been unconvinced by this mystification, increasing numbers of people in the global North doubt the branding and distorting of Zionist neo-colonialism. Current efforts to censor criticism of Israel must be understood as censorship against exposing the neo-colonization of Palestine, specifically, and of the global South, generally. It is precisely in this moment of extreme neo-colonial violence that decolonial theory may offer a path forward: decolonization begins with demystifying the violence, sovereignty, and territory of neo-colonialism. Palestine is unmasking neo-colonialism.

Lena Salaymeh is British Academy Global Professor in the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and Professor in the École Pratique des Hautes Études-PSL. She was previously Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University. She co-founded the Decolonial Comparative Law Program at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and Private International Law in 2019 and co-directed it until 2023.

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