Interested in Studying Law? 

Need help with your law studies?



International Law – A Heaven or Hell on Earth?

(Part 6 - Failed States and Tribalism)


by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law


International Law promised a noble world at the end of the Second World War. Was that dream realised -- or was the dream a chimera? In this sixth of a series of articles, The Law Journal UK examines the promise -- and reality -- of Democratic Values in the World.


The concept of the nation state is relatively new in human history. Society has seen tribal allegiances, the rise and fall of great empires – but nation states have been only in existence in most areas of the world for far less than a thousand years, many for far less than one hundred.


Many of these nations were created by the European powers carving up continents for their areas of influence. These boundary lines paid little or no attention to tribal or cultural affiliations.


Ignoring these realities has caused Western countries innumerable follies.


Few Americans ever realised that there was no real country called Vietnam (North and South). Rather, there were three different countries – and cultures – within the borders determined by politicians and diplomats. The Vietnam War was much more of a civil war than it was a battlefront in the cold war. Hence the West never comprehended what was really happening.


We see similar tribal influences today in many of the battlefields of the world.


Iraq is really three different countries, not one. The attempt to introduce democracy in a totally non-cohesive polity is doomed to failure. No one considers themselves an Iraqi, but rather part of a tribal affiliation. Hence the issue in that area of the world is less one of religion and more one of tribal allegiance.


Afghanistan is another interesting case in point. There is a government in Kabul that is Western supported. And there are supporters of that government within the country – but most of those supporters are of the same tribal identification as the leadership. The experience of the Western NATO and US forces in Afghanistan is significant. When the Western forces tried to promote loyalty to the Kabul government to gain the support of the people of Afghanistan, it had little real success. The focus then changed to obtaining the support of the tribal leaders – most of whom are Pashtun tribe members looking to unite with their fellow tribe members in Pakistan. Suddenly, there was support among much of the populace. But note that the tribal leaders are, at the same time,  playing up to the West as well as to the Taliban – so much so that the tribal leaders have been told by the West to make up their mind as to their support.


We are seeing the same tribal allegiances in other areas of the world.


In Somalia, the nation state has not existed for a long time. The ‘nation’ is now ruled by tribal warlords. When, over a decade ago, there was an attempt – largely by the US – to provide humanitarian support to the ‘nation’ of Somalia, they ran headlong into the tribal realities of the region. The mission turned into fighting the warlords rather than helping the people.


In Sudan, we see an Arab government in Khartoum exiling untold numbers of their fellow citizens because they are of a different culture, tribal race, and religion. The reality is that there is no concept in the Sudanese government that these people have any rights in that country – they are different, they are outsiders, and hence genocide is the appropriate approach.


Rwanda, again a decade ago, experienced a vicious tribal genocide involving the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. While the country has seemingly emerged from that maelstrom, outside observers get the feeling that this calm is paper-thin.


Now we are seeing the tribal warfare in nations such as Kenya and Zimbabwe.


The Kenyan election was, ignoring the endemic and systemic corruption, decided on tribal allegiances – so much so that a Rwandan-style tribal genocide is exploding.


Zimbabwe has likewise turned into a tribal hell, with society being controlled, as in many countries, by the largest tribe, at the expense – and too often, the lives – of the smaller tribes.

These problems are not limited to Africa and Asia.


Europe has had a long history of tribal allegiances. The nation states, built by ‘nation builders’, were largely pulled together by the sword, not the ploughshare. Ethnic groups were pulled together by force.


Even with strong central governments such as in France, ethnic tribal influences are stronger than allegiance to Paris – witness the ongoing warfare in Corsica, and ethnic separateness in places such as Brittany. The tribal divisions in Belgium have been so great that it has been extraordinarily difficult for that small country to pull together a new government. And then there are the Balkans, where tribal loyalties sparked World War One, and where genocide has continued to the present day, particularly after the collapse of the Communist Yugoslavia.


The ultimate of racial tribalism was, of course, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi ideology which not only identified groups such as the Jews that were to be destroyed, but also classified tribes throughout Europe as to their fate and value – some were more suitable as slave labour, others only suitable for death. An interesting aspect to Nazi thinking was the view that the Germanic tribes had historical friends and historical enemies. Russia was a historical enemy, while Britain was a historical friend. This view was so strong, that Hitler kept diplomatic initiatives going during the War, privately stating to the Allies that the Germanic tribes had no fight with the British historically, but only with the Russians. The interesting view is one of an inherent tribalism that is not unique to Hitler and the Nazis. It is throughout Europe, even in, albeit, a milder form. But it is there, nonetheless.


What does this tribalism – which is clearly worldwide – have to do with the issue of ‘failed states’?


The reality is as follows. These ‘failed states’ are misnamed. They are, rather ‘tribal states’ – states in the legal sense internationally, but tribal in their organisation.


What has failed is not the state. What has failed is a Western-based perception of the nation state being democratic, inclusive of all tribal and ethnic loyalties.


When the British Empire turned into the Commonwealth of Nations, former colonies became nation-states with elected Parliaments. There was great hope that these countries had new, Western-education liberal leaders.


However, within just a couple of years, most of these Parliamentary governments were overthrown, usually by a military populated by the largest tribe in the country.  Parliament was effectively replaced by a militaristic tribal dictatorship. Those who fought the military regime were not always democratic in orientation – rather, they were fighting a tribal civil war against the biggest, ruling tribe who had frequently marked the rebel tribe for extermination.


What does this mean for International Law?


International Law, based on Westphalian concepts, looks to the nation state as the participant. Yet in too many cases and conflicts, the nation state is meaningless in the face of tribal loyalties, and in fact the national government may simply be an instrument of the largest tribe.


Western – and indeed other – nations attempt to ignore this reality. In the face of the obvious, these nations continue to issue statements and positions that have no basis in reality, and in fact show that their foreign policies are bankrupt.


In Pakistan, the recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto has resulted in calls for a return to ‘full democracy’ by Western leaders. Did Pakistan ever have ‘full democracy’?


In Arab countries where the Bush administration has encouraged elections, the victors have not been the liberal, democratic ideologies. Rather, tribal and fundamentalist loyalties have taken power.


In the Palestinian territories, the tribal civil war between Hamas and Fatah has resulted in an effective division between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Fatah-controlled West Bank. And, in any areas that Israel has withdrawn from, peace has not resulted. Rather, these areas of withdrawal have simply become a newer, closer location for attacks on Israel. Yet Western and other world leaders continue to call for a ‘democratic Palestinian State comprising Gaza and the West Bank, living in peace and with peaceful borders with all nations, including Israel’. They continue to act as if there can be a Palestinian state of any such reality. Even Palestinians on the street have acknowledged that the Hamas-Fatah civil war has destroyed any such utopic vision.


Once again, nations are spouting bankrupt statements while ignoring tribal allegiances and realities. And then they wonder why the world does not work as they wish, and why their foreign policy initiatives are frequently – and spectacularly – doomed to failure.


International law and foreign policy is based historically on the nation-state. However, until international law and foreign policies realise that in much of the world, the nation-state is meaningless in the face of stronger, tribal allegiances, we will continue to fall from failure to failure to failure.


Illusions are no substitute for reality. And reality is what we must deal with – even if it is a reality that does not fit the historical basis of International Law.




Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law 


Your thoughts? 


Latest News:

Press Release - Balzan Prize 2007 - Rosalyn Higgins, President of the International Court of Justice, The Hague among recipients

SPECIAL FROM UCL: Towards a New Constitutional Settlement: An Agenda for Gordon Brown’s First 100 Days and Beyond - Robert Hazell

Book Review:

New Review -- Football 'Hooliganism': Policing and the War on the 'English Disease' by Dr. Clifford Stott and Dr. Geoff Pearson - Pennant Books

The Forensic Logician by Geoffrey Tøye - Starborn Books

Other Current Articles:

The Abuse Excuse -- One Size Fits All? - by James Castagnera - United States

Domestic Violence and the Problems of Poor Policing - by Karen Clark-Stapleton - UK

Freedoms of the Air - Changing the Patterns of International Trade and Commerce - by Aaron M. Daniels - Canada

Foreign Investment in the Russian Federation - Denis Biryukov - Russia

Indian Legal Profession in Transition - by Kamal Wadhwa - India

For previous Articles, please click to visit our Archive.