23 Mar TWAIL Pedagogy: Un-Learning Colonial Ways of Teaching International Law
Dr Mohsen al Attar and Dr Rafael Quintero Godínez**
Modern legal education has been criticised for trying to make itself harmless. Law professors provide students with a sanitised view of the field that camouflages the cracks and contradictions on offer. This approach leads to the circulation of parochial knowledge that overlooks the nuances of the societies we inhabit and the struggles that take place. While this approach has limitations across legal education, its implications are especially pernicious in international law.
Mainstream approaches dominate the teaching of international law. They present a decontextualised version of European modernity that avoids the power relations and subjectivities upon which the frame was fashioned. Colonialism, the slave trade, and multiple genocides are played down in the curriculum, while non-European cultures, practices, and epistemologies vanish altogether. We are left with a series of isolated rules and principles—false universals—divorced from the geopolitical context in which they were formed. This stunted approach whitewashes the brutality of international law and reinforces an imaginary of white innocence, insisting that past oppressions do not reflect current practices or intentions.
To counter this dangerously skewed view, critical thinkers have developed anti-colonial, anti-racist, anti-sexist, decolonised, and indigenous approaches in the teaching of international law. These approaches broaden our outlook, compelling us to account for places and priorities beyond an imagined centre, and thus better reflect international law’s true potential in organising human relations. In this essay, we provide a brief account of one example of this shift: TWAIL pedagogy. Our aim is not to provide an all-encompassing account of TWAIL’s contribution to legal education, but to encourage mainstream international legal scholars to learn and benefit from a TWAIL pedagogical perspective. By doing so, we can ensure the teaching of international law aligns with the world the regime seeks to order.
1- Colonial Education: Inculcating Consent to Third World Subordination
Education is a fundamental aspect of life, beginning at birth and enduring until death. The environments we inhabit shape our consciousness, underscoring the symbiosis between learning and human flourishing. Education, in fact, remains the only path to immortality, encoding legacies socially and epistemologically so future generations may learn from those who came before them, sometimes to their detriment.
Consider the pivotal role played by the eugenics movement in the history of Africa and Europe. Internalising the racism propagated by influential scientists and clergy, participants in the Berlin congress (1884) catalysed a civilisational catastrophe for African peoples, one that proved profitable for Europeans. Over a century later, eugenics continue to impact current societal politics, with the lives of Black peoples treated as less valuable than those of their white counterparts. Some educational institutions such as UCL are beginning to acknowledge their part in propagating these anti-scientific teachings, with credit owed to the decolonisation movement for forcing this moral reckoning. By contrast, others argue that memorials enshrining racists are here to stay, leaving their ideas to taint another day.
As we have seen through history, it is not unexpected for future generations revere the past, no matter how distasteful. In many instances, learning is conservative, seeking to preserve the status quo. In this manner, education operates covertly, naturalising social and cultural norms that dominate within a specific context, and are preferred foremost by its architects. This practice is not always well-intentioned.
Since the Berlin congress, numerous African nations have fought to regain control over this crucial cultural imperative. This is also true for the Americas and Asia, those regions colonised by Europe’s epistemic paradigm of power. Colonialism’s objective was to spread European subjectivity over non-European peoples and states. Its champions’ techniques were surreptitious yet blunt: settlements, financial arrangements, and violence reorganised lives and landscapes. Each tactic ruthlessly exploited Third World communities for the benefit of Europe. Cultural artefacts, such as language, religion, law, and literature, were also employed by colonial powers. The civilising mission had a potent educational component that finessed its predatory agenda.
Colonial education was the product of a profound intellectual and cultural arrogance, built on the delusion that the coloniser’s social reality was the only reality worth talking about. It taught Third World peoples to think, read, and worship in English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. Reading Shakespeare, Dante, Locke, Moliére, Cervantes, Smith, Rousseau, and the Bible, they studied European history, geography, and values that damaged not only their cultural identity, but their dignity as well. Gramsci’s concept of organised consent is helpful to understand the pedagogical dynamic at play. Removing generations from their traditions, the colonial education model proved to be an instrument of savagery, imparting both physical and epistemic violence on colonised peoples. The goal of the colonial powers was to remould the colonised in the image of the oppressors, inculcating them with European culture while effacing their own.
By universalising a single epistemology, colonisers cultivated a hegemonic dynamic, with Third World peoples taught to aspire to be anything but Third World. The result was an education for subordination and exploitation, for the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment. The negative impacts of colonialism on education, however, did not end there. International law was also shaped by these hegemonic ways of being and teaching.
2- From Mainstream Myth-Making to TWAIL Pedagogy
Early scholars of mainstream international law, including Vitoria, Vattel, Grotius, Pufendorf, and Westlake, were overwhelmingly white European males. Their Eurocentric credentials acted to reinforce Western epistemic hegemony by disregarding international legal practices and traditions outside the Eurosphere, and thus normalising prejudice against non-European epistemes. These origins also had significant consequences for student learning.
MILS’ instruction follows a positivist legal orientation. This process-laden approach emphasises technical skills with a disproportionate focus on identifying sources and constructing arguments. For instance, the Jessup and Pictet moot court competitions test students on pleadings involving artificial problem scenarios, with victory predicated on a rhetorically smooth application of the rules. Legitimacy is inferred from the entire legal structure, masking any sociological, geopolitical, or epistemic controversies. From a positivist perspective, the solution to any international legal problem is always two-fold: a better application of existing laws or the adoption of more laws. In other words, if one treaty fails, create another. The broader framework of international law has been elevated above its material manifestation, invoking, with no small irony, a sense of religious devotion—or at least fealty—among its proponents.
Not all international legal pedagogy is motivated by ideological submission, with scholars increasingly seeking to embed international law and associated teaching socially. TWAIL offers such an approach, urging scholars and students to reflect on aspects of international law that are often overlooked in mainstream accounts. These include power asymmetries, colonial legacies, and violence, all of which are essential for advancing Third World interests. In adopting this line, TWAIL challenges the positivist framework of MILS and champions a mix of counter-hegemonic perspectives. These include postcolonial narratives, decolonial visions, and anti-colonial ripostes. TWAIL’s interventions provide the groundwork for withdrawing consent from existing structures and exploring alternative frames and futures. We have identified three prominent methods: history, dialectics, and epistemic renewal.
In the Oxford Handbook on the History of International Law, Lesaffer over romanticised peace treaties, ignoring the contexts in which many were negotiated and the consequences they ushered for non-Europeans. When proclaiming the transcendental value of these treaties, Lesaffer limits his historiography to an account that began in Greece and ended in France, leaving most of the world out. He omits crucial examples such as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Treaty of Tientsin, peace treaties that respectively required Mexico to cede 55% of its territory to the USA and forced China to legalise the sale of English opium.
In the postcolonial tradition, TWAIL scholars challenge Lesaffer’s Eurocentric perspective by retelling the history of European modernity with an emphasis on the experiences of Third World peoples. They highlight the contradictions between the tenets of liberalism, democracy, and capitalism and the genocidal intent of settler colonialism. They emphasise the one-sided application of doctrines of unilateral intervention and economic coercion, demonstrating the injustices inherent to the Eurocentric order. TWAIL pedagogy provides a more nuanced understanding of international legal history, offering a place for counter-narratives that expose the injustices of international law and honour Third World struggles against them.
Mainstream international law scholars have a curious habit of using Shakespeare to disguise the hypocrisy of international law. For instance, Koskenniemi declares “The lady doth protest too much” as an allegory for those questioning NATO’s illegal bombing of Yugoslavia. To Schill, “Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” captures international investment law’s putative search for a public interest prerogative. These rhetorical spins usually disguise wide-reaching hypocrisy in the application of international law. By asserting fuzzy values such as duty to protect and public interest while reciting Shakespeare, even breaches of Article 2(4) can be cast as heroic.
Enter TWAIL dialectics. A dialectical outlook expels false universals by drawing attention to the split between those who benefit from specific legal arrangements and those who suffer them. Students need a much more layered understanding of the law that enables them to recognise and challenge such inequities. Instead of using rhetoric to mask breaches of international law, TWAIL scholars reveal the asymmetries at play and expose the injustices inherent to the Eurocentric order. Consider the decision-making processes of international organisations such as the UNSC, IMF, and WB. These organisations have codified plutocratic voting arrangements that make a mockery of sovereign equality. With tautological fervour, mainstream scholars defend these arrangements as part and parcel of the existing framework. Neither the UN mechanisms nor customary international law, for example, provide a process by which the UNGA could strip the P5 of their veto powers. TWAIL pedagogy highlights these contradictions, not to subvert the order, but to instil in students a critical understanding of the dialectics at play.
C- Epistemic Renewal
Imagine yourself lecturing students from Argentina, China, Cuba, India, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, South Africa, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen on the fundamentals of international law: the principle of world peace, sovereign equality of states, prohibition on the use of force, and promotion of economic and social advancement. One student enquires about the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Other than religion and skin colour, what’s so different about Ukraine, they wonder? Will the ICC issue arrest warrants for Blair and Bush? Another student ponders why Argentina wasn’t bailed out like banks were in 2008 or Credit Suisse is today. Was a state of 50 million not too big to fail? Are odious debt and economic sanctions not also expressions of unlawful force? They quote Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan favourably; what’s the point of UN mechanisms if Euro-America can deploy international law with tactical impunity? A final student asks about the status of Palestine. If it declares itself a state, if 140 states recognise it as a state, is it not a state?
Like a skilful Moulin Rouge acrobat, deftly ducking flying knives, you explain that law in the books is not a Siamese twin to law in practice; sometimes, they are not even related. You tell your students that traditional international legal textbooks cannot answer legitimate questions from Third World states because they are steeped in denial of international law’s epistemological singularity. They have imprinted a European understanding of the world on the conceptual framework publicists teach. For example, the canard of a gentle civiliser is indicative of the lasting consequences of Eurocentrism, consistently obfuscating the formidable material and epistemic violence of the colonial state (which, curiously, even former French presidents acknowledge).
TWAIL pedagogy’s reconstructive spirit lies in its critique of false universality and its pursuit of epistemic renewal. To quote Getachew and Mantena, “deparochializing dialogue requires first parochializing Western political thought.” The goal is to stop propagating the hierarchy of values of modernity’s lead societies and imagine alternative universals not structured on the denial and domination of others. As Bhambra argues, simply adding Eurocentrism and colonialism to the debate about international law is insufficient. Publicists must recognise that the frame was structured by their absence and the exclusion of non-European peoples’ epistemic traditions. However, this is not a call for a comparative approach, as some have suggested. Rather, the trajectory and status of postcolonial states do not align with the narrative of international law taught in most law schools. Epistemic renewal seeks to reorient legal pedagogy to account for non-European peoples’ values, experiences, and epistemes. In this way, TWAIL pedagogy corresponds to the anti-colonial imaginary: cultivating a new normative frame that is utopian in character and aspiration.
3- A New Origin Story: Overcoming International Law’s Sociopathic Tendencies
What comes…of having ones’ comprehension of the world so directly tied to one’s conquest of it? Much of the knowledge achieved through conquest and colonization was understood to legitimate the political and cultural domination of imperialism. The resulting perspective on the world formed an educational legacy that we have now to reconsider.John Willinsky (1998)
Origin stories are always more fiction than fact, serving to rehabilitate dubious pasts or legitimate uncomfortable presents. Mythology possesses symbolic and material power, shaping how we see the world and how others learn to see it. In both cases, our focus is on the future, with mythology edging us towards preferred trajectories.
International law was a wonderful tool in the advance of both colonial and imperial aims. European powers arrogated to themselves a form of quasi-omnipotence, universalising their worldview, and sacrificing those of others. The commitments Europe made to itself became the teleology of international law. Some publicists acknowledge the civilisational costs associated with European modernity: millions were massacred, our ecosystem is on the brink, and states still perpetrate starvation as collective punishment. However, they insist we ought not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even illiberal international law boosted causes such as legal equality, women’s rights, the prohibition of slavery, and free trade. The mythology of international law was always compelling propaganda, helping European publicists see themselves as better than they were.
TWAIL scholars intervened in this self-serving mythology, crafting a counter-narrative that accounted for those brutalised by the regime. This new origin story is stripped of nobility, and “if the baby represents international law, then it is a predatory, genocidal, and sociopathic infant bathing in the putrefaction of its own pathologies.” As CLR James uncovered when investigating French deeds in San Domingo: “[Slave] masters poured burning wax on their arms and hands and shoulders, emptied the boiling cane sugar over their heads, burned them alive, roasted them on slow fires, filled them with gunpowder and blew them up with a match.” La mission civilisatrice was always short on civilisation. James goes on: “[Colonisers] buried [the enslaved] up to the neck and smeared their heads with sugar that the flies might devour them; fastened them near to nests of ants or wasps; made them eat their excrement, drink their urine, and lick the saliva of other slaves.” And these acts encapsulate a single paragraph in a sweeping chronicle about savagery, a drop in the colonial swamp.
Without the cognitive dissonance facilitated by mythmaking, international law and its cheerleaders appear deranged, even ghoulish. TWAIL pedagogy exposes these myths, urging its scholars to unlearn colonial ways of teaching international law. Early TWAIL scholars focused on cultivating Third World legal consciousness and articulating a critique of legal imperialism. Today, the impetus has broadened, advancing forms of learning that disrupt the categories Eurocentrism imposed on us and opening up new ways of mediating human relations. Using history, dialectics, and epistemic renewal, we can build momentum towards international law’s reimagination. TWAIL has shown the way; whether mainstream international legal scholars can keep up remains to be seen.
*We develop these ideas in much more detail in our forthcoming chapter—TWAIL Pedagogy: Teaching International Law Better—in Antony Anghie et al., TWAIL Reader (Edward Elgar, 2024).
**Dr Rafael Quintero Godínez is a lecturer at Birmingham City School of Law.
El pueblo a la Universidad. La Universidad al pueblo is a mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros on display at UNAM. It portrays a symbiotic relationship between universities and peoples.