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A. What is Decolonisation?Edit

The term ‘decolonisation’ most typically refers to the dissolution of European empires in the aftermath of the second world war— the time period between 1940’s-1970’s. This period is marked as a watershed moment in the history of international order when a large majority of former European colonies gained independence and became states in their own right. Concurrent to this, international law recognised a fundamental right to self-determination. The acquisition of sovereignty and rights of self-determination of non-European peoples in the mid-20th century marked the end of an epoch of explicitly racialist international law and politics. At the same time, scholars of third world sovereignty note important limitations to a state-centric theory of decolonisation. For instance, the newly independent states were born into a system, the rules of which had already been largely established against their favour. Scholars of sovereignty have noted the peculiar position of former colonies in the international order even since the dissolution of formal imperialism. Anthony Anghie has put it “the acquisition of sovereignty by the Third World was an extraordinarily significant event; and yet, various limitations and disadvantages appeared to be somehow peculiarly connected with that sovereignty”.[1] Similarly, in his analysis of African independence, Grovogui notes that there is a common misunderstanding in theories of international order which “equate the transfer of political power, however limited, from the coloniser to the colonised, with African self-determination and an assumption of national sovereignty”. [2] Grovogui’s analysis remains pertinent even today, and can be extended far beyond the African continent. The era of formal colonisation is over, nevertheless, the formerly occupied states still remain subordinated members of international order. The terms “global south”, “third world” or “developing countries” try to allude to this power differential. Accordingly, more and more scholars think of decolonisation as something further that needs to be done.

Today there are at least two ways in which the term ‘decolonisation’ is deployed in the literature. First, decolonisation as the very concrete, legal and political practice whereby former colonies gained their independence, i.e. they began to practice the right of self-determination. It is perhaps more fruitful to refer to this temporal aspect of decolonisation as the decolonisation era or the Independence era, because it is now quite well established that even though territorial empire is now over, western dominance continues in different forms through a number of issue areas including the doctrines, concepts and processes of international law.[3] The second sense in which decolonisation is addressed in the literature really builds on the limitations of the first, and requires us to take stock of our history, ongoing power relations and epistemological practices. This chapter proceeds by first outlining the classical theory of decolonisation in international law and international relations and then considering some of the historical and contemporary critiques of this idea. The main goal is to  highlight the different ways in which the term “decolonisation” is used in international law research ties into larger questions about how international legal scholarship either aligns with or ties into the practices of global power.  

[1] A. Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law, (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), p. 3

[2] S. N. Grovogui, Sovereigns, Quasi Sovereigns, and Africans, Race and Self-Determination in International Law,  (Minneapolis:   University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 1

[3] Take for example, the constitution of the UN Security Council. For a discussion see, Anghie, Imperialism and International Law,

1. A State Centric History of International Order

The 'Inclusion Thesis'Edit

Limitations of the Inclusion ThesisEdit

The State and Global Power RelationsEdit

2. Decolonisation: A Methodological ProblemEdit

Epistemic Relations and the Intellectual Division of LabourEdit


B. Decolonisation: The Importance of Theory and HistoryEdit

Further ReadingsEdit

  • Source I
  • Source II


  • Summary I
  • Summary II

Table of ContentsEdit

Back to home page

Part I - History, Theory, and Methods

Part II - General International Law

Part III - Specialized Fields


  1. The first footnote. Please adhere to OSCOLA when formating citations. Whenever possible, provide a link with the citation, ideally to an open-access source.