University of Cambridge > > Legal Histories beyond the State > 'The consciousness of a duty done': British attitudes towards self-determination and the case of the Sudan

'The consciousness of a duty done': British attitudes towards self-determination and the case of the Sudan

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It is rare for studies on the era of decolonization to present a colonial power as champion of the concept of self-determination. Most of the time, colonial powers were not eager, to put it mildly, to accept the ‘blessing of a people freed // the consciousness of a duty done’ (as a senior British administrator in the Sudan described it). Indeed, some former colonial powers have relied on this reluctance to argue that they were, in terms of international law, ‘persistent objectors’ to the customary norm of self-determination, and are therefore not bound by it. In a recent arbitration between Mauritius and the United Kingdom, the latter argued that it ‘consistently, throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, objected to references to a “right” of self-determination’, and that self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter did not have any concrete legal meaning before the 1970s. However, as the quote above illustrates, the British history in the Sudan reveals a different, more curious and more nuanced story of British attitudes towards self-determination. When Egypt—a country that had experienced British colonial rule—sought to absorb the Sudan on the ground of titular sovereignty, Great Britain invoked self-determination as a legal right of the Sudanese. Relying extensively on primary sources, this article shows, contrary to the dominant narrative, that the UN Charter’s references to self-determination were imbued with legal meaning soon after its adoption. Moreover, whereas the legal literature on self-determination largely concentrates on the texts and circumstances of the classic UN General Assembly resolutions of 1960 and 1970, this article shows how diplomatic and administrative exchanges within one government changed, in a specific case, that government’s attitude towards self-determination, transforming it from a political principle to a legal entitlement. This internal process culminated in the UK invoking self-determination before the UN Security Council, and with success. The article therefore tells two closely intertwined stories: one of the internal dynamics leading to the formation of a state’s foreign policy, and one of the subsequent efforts of that state externally to objectify its understanding of self-determination by using the language of law, thereby translating it to a precise legal entitlement.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER : Sarah Nouwen is University Senior Lecturer in International Law at the University of Cambridge, and Orfeas Chasapis-Tassinis is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Law.

ABOUT THE SEMINAR : The seminar will proceed on the basis that participants have read the paper in advance. For a copy of the paper (available one week in advance), or to join the seminar mailing list, please contact md718.

The Legal Histories beyond the State series is an initiative of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, the Centre for History and Economics, and the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought. It brings together historians, political theorists and lawyers who are interested in the social, economic and political dimensions of law in the early modern and modern periods. We focus on the ways in which law and legal institutions order and organize space and people. This encompasses both imperial and international law, and domestic public and private law in its manifold influences on the nature and form of relations across borders. We are interested in legal actors and institutions, both national and supranational; doctrines and concepts, like jurisdiction; and also diverse forms of legal border-crossing, including the migration of people, ideas and objects across time and place. Embracing new trends in legal and historical research, we pursue the exchange of legal ideas in formal and informal contexts, and the creation, appropriation and interpretation of law by non-traditional actors, and in unexpected places.

Some sessions will be devoted to discussion of new, published work in the field, and others to the sharing of works-in-progress, whether draft articles, chapters or book prospectuses, with a core group of scholars from a variety of disciplines.

All are welcome.

This talk is part of the Legal Histories beyond the State series.

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