Middle East Expert Laments Failures of International Law

“Walls, Borders and Fences,” the spring 2017 speaker series sponsored by the Scripps Humanities Institute, shifted its focus to the Mediterranean as Dr. Lori Allen, an expert of the Middle East, discussed the relationship between international law, investigative forces, and Palestine in Scripps College's Balch Auditorium on April 11.

The series of talks has explored the effects of social and political divisions in diverse historical and geographic locations, and has featured discussions on how borders change contemporary power relations in places like the United States, Mexico, Europe, apartheid South Africa, Kashmir, and even Los Angeles. 

Allen completed her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Book Prize for her book on occupied Palestine. Currently, she is a senior lecturer of anthropology at SOAS University of London.

According to Allen, international committees from Western countries like the United Kingdom and the United States attempt to persuade 'Third World' nations that Western policy-making uses only objective reason and democratic, humanitarian means to solve conflicts and create an international system.

She also said that international powers justify their presence in the Middle East by claiming that they will eradicate the violence and pain the people there have already experienced. Allen made it clear that while the West is violent, its domination and violence goes unremarked upon.

“I was thinking throughout about just how influential external nations are,” audience member Leah Rosenspike PO ’19 said. “They [have] so much power.”

According to Allen, nations exist in a historical cycle in which they put their faith in international commissions, lose that faith, and then regain that faith.

“Most speakers [in the series] laid an emphasis on both learning and unlearning in history,” said Elena Dypiangco SC '19, a student worker at the Humanities Institute.

Allen traced the historical situation in Palestine from a little before World War II, adding that although that period may now seem ancient, the political decisions made for refugees and the interplay of compassion, violence and international law is still present in immigration situations today.

According to Allen, many Arabs in the region opposed Zionist demands and promised Jews equal rights to Arabs, only opposing a space in which the Jews were given unique power. They preferred that the U.S. intervene because they believed in the Unied States' disinterest in the region, failing to recognize that the United States cared little for the region’s settler-colonial history and had a history of Islamophobia, Allen said.

Allen added that in 1948, on the recommendation of the U.N., Israel was given to the Jewish people. The U.N. charter promised to judge international disputes on the basis of fundamental human rights and self-determination, and created institutions to promote goodwill between the Arab nations and the U.S. Large-scale conflict between the Arab states and Israel then followed.

The U.N. failed to prevent the formation of Israel and the outbreak of war. According to Allen, international bodies just apply the norms they had created to every situation, without understanding it, in a system similar to colonialism.

“We think of international law as the be-all end-all,” said Dypianco, “but that obviously provides false hope for a lot of people.”

However, Allen said that the Palestinians were not naïve to believe in every new move but simply had enough faith to continue their momentum towards what they wanted.

Allen added that although humanitarian systems were ineffective, she wonders where we would be without them. She ended by noting that on most days, however, she is completely against the international system and thinks that it must be eradicated. She said an alternative to international peace organizations is mobilizing international solidarity.

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