Given the long history of violent encounters between the Global North and the Global South, legal arguments concerning the use of force are a fertile ground for testing the virtues and limits of Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) as a theory aspiring to “address the material and ethical concerns of Third World peoples.” This essay examines the usefulness and limits of TWAIL in the context of the “unwilling or unable” doctrine currently promoted by a series of Western scholars and states in order to expand the scope of application of the right to self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Adopting TWAIL’s impulse to historicize, this essay argues that the structure of this doctrine closely replicates the “standard of civilization” that informed international legal theory and practice throughout the nineteenth century. At the same time, widespread resistance to the “unwilling or unable” doctrine indicates that the profound transformation of international law on the use of force after 1945 and the diffusion of sovereignty outside the West put into question certain methodological and political commitments of TWAIL.
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