Asymmetrical international law and its role in constituting empires: the ICJ Chagos Advisory Opinion


  • Gail Lythgoe University of Glasgow


international law, international adjudication, imperialism, British Empire, postcolonial critique, legal subalternity, self-determination, International Court of Justice


The ongoing relationship between the UK and the Chagos Archipelago raises a number of important questions about international law’s relationship with imperialism, more specifically, the ability of the international legal order to influence the fact and the manner of decolonisation. In this contribution, I explore some aspects of this problem. I begin by providing a brief overview of the proceedings of the International Court of Justice, summarising the basic legal consequences of the court’s Advisory Opinion, before discussing its implications from the standpoint of what it reveals about international law’s relationship with the residual British Empire. My argument is that, for all its apparent attempts to promote decolonisation and self-determination, the international legal order has been and continues to remain complicit in the maintenance of exactly the kind of asymmetrical legal relations that constitute empires. Thus, although the Chagos Advisory Opinion may well have long-term significance for the development of the international legal doctrine and the teachings of international law, given the UK’s current position, it will not have any immediate impact on the plight of the Chagossian people.





Notes and commentaries