The European International Law

By LawrenceGarcia

Historically speaking it is beyond any question that the European international law as the product of Christian civilization was only one of the normative systems that existed in various regions of the world long before the sixteenth century, when European values of equality of States with respect to international law began to take shape. However, it is equally unquestionable that European international law theory has greatly influenced the contemporary interna¬≠tional legal system, more than any other normative system in history, including those illustrated. This was dictated not by the system itself, but social conditions in which it grew and developed. When it is claimed, however, that “because it was in fact Europe and not America, Asia, or Africa that first dominated and, in so doing, unified the world, it is not our perspective but the historical record itself that can be called Eurocentric,” it is only half way from the truth, as Europe indeed “dominated” the world, but not “unified” it.

Unlike domestic legal system, international legal system or norms, as we regard it today, since its early days was not created to “regulate” the relations between different social communities or national groups. In most cases it was the result of the conquest and the vindication of power of the strong over the weak. Whether to define those norms accepted among a certain international community as “rules” or “virtue”, they were subject to the will of the powerful and guaranteed by its or their might. Once the power changed, so would the norms. Various social communities, from empires to other types of international systems, differed rather in the number of the powerful at each time than that of an empire and an equal society. Even within the “Family of Nations” in Europe, to which international law was applicable, it was the Great Powers that determined the course of legal development. “While the weak may propose, it is the strong that disposes.” The equality reflected more of equilibrium of powerful members of a certain society than a legal order. The early normative systems, to use the term, such as Sinocentric tribute system, the Muslim World, did create certain norms that had binding force on the members of the community, but based on feudalist social system model or religious faith, such legal systems both socially and culturally had their inbuilt defects, perhaps as being “unilateralistical and hierarchical”, to claim and achieve general application on the global basis. More importantly, none of the powers possessed the necessary abilities and material power to assure its dominance in the world, whether it wanted or not.

What happened on the European continent after the industrial revolution took off sped up the pace of the European colonial expansion. With their rapidly growing military and economic strength, European States succeeded in opening and dividing up Asian and African continents by cannons (also canons) and warships to obtain access to their market and natural resources, together with their moral and legal justifications for their colonial rule. Although in the international treatise, lease or cession of territory, creation of protectorate, trade preferences, consular jurisdiction, etc. were done by the agreement of the States concerned in the form of treaties, these legal concepts and rules were obviously not shared by the non-European countries as normatively acceptable, but simply deemed as “unequal treaties” imposed by western powers. From the European perspective, these Asian and African countries were not considered as equals under their international law either. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only 46 States in the world were regarded as fully sovereign, among which just Turkey and Japan were non-Christian countries. A large part of the law provided the legal basis for the colonial expansion and exploitation by the imperialist powers of the Asian and African countries. This Eurocentric origin of international law is critically recognized by all sides now and no longer presents any debatable issue.