In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Decolonization in International Law

  • Introduction
  • International Law and the Colonial Encounter
  • The Decolonization “Moment”
  • Decolonization and Neocolonial Practices
  • Settler Colonialism in the Early 21st Century

International Law Decolonization in International Law
Mai Taha
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0195


In Gillo Pontecorvo’s evocative film The Battle of Algiers (1966), viewers reach the conclusion that the fight against colonialism would not be fought at the UN General Assembly. Decolonization would take place through the organized resistance of colonized people. Still, the 1945 United Nations Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights provided some legal basis, albeit tenuous, for self-determination. When Third World leaders assembled in the 1955 Bandung Conference, it became clear that the UN needed to shift gears on the question of decolonization. By 1960, and through a show of Asian and African votes at the General Assembly, the Declaration for the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples was adopted, effectively outlawing colonialism and affirming the right of all peoples to self-determination. Afro-Asian solidarity took a different form in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, which founded the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The conference gathered leftist activists and leaders from across the Third World, who would later inspire radical movements and scholarship on decolonization and anticolonial socialism. This would also influence the adoption of the 1974 Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order and later lead to UNESCO’s series that starts with Mohammed Bedjaoui’s famous overture, Towards a New International Economic Order (1979; cited as Bedjaoui 1979 under the Decolonization “Moment”). This article situates this history within important international-law scholarship on decolonization. First, it introduces different approaches to decolonization and international law; namely, postcolonial, Marxist, feminist, and Indigenous approaches. Second, it highlights seminal texts on international law and the colonial encounter. Third, it focuses on scholarship that captures the spirit of the “decolonization moment” as a political and temporal rupture, but also as a continuity, addressing, fourth, decolonization and neocolonial practices. Finally, this article ends with some of the most important works on international law and settler colonialism in the 21st century.

General Overviews

While postcolonial theory is the most obvious body of literature that influenced scholarship on international law and decolonization, most notably through the canon of Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), other approaches have also been significant. Influenced by radical and leftist anticolonial movements, antiracist Marxist international legal scholars have also contributed to the conversation through engaging with ideology critique, class analysis, a critique of property relations, and racial capitalism. Feminist approaches, including Marxist feminist approaches, have also been influential in pushing forward an intersectional agenda that historically connects different systems of oppression. Finally, Indigenous approaches to international law have recast light on questions pertaining to land, indigeneity, and permanent sovereignty over natural resources in a settler colonial context.

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