As we look at questions of justice on a global scale, we quickly come to see that situations are very complex. For example, disputes over territorial claims aren’t easily resolved. (Anybody remember The Google Maps War?)
To illustrate, imagine a school where the teacher leaves the kids alone at lunch. A couple of the bullies go around and steal everybody’s lunches. The other kids being to fight back, and at that point a teacher comes in. The teacher tells everyone to sit down, stop fighting and eat what’s in front of them. The bullies generously offer to take the food they’ve stolen and sell it back to the other kids. Does anyone think this is just?
Now imagine the same school fifty years later. Every day, at lunch time, the teachers take the food away from certain kids and give it to others. “Your grandparents were bullies who took the food from these kids’ grandparents; now we’re righting that wrong.” Does anyone think this is just?
Silly examples, I know, but to some degree they show how ridiculous simple solutions to historical border disputes are. Look at the United States, for example. We have some land that belongs to us because of signed treaties, treaties that are now disputed by the countries that ceded us that land. (It’s funny to me how few people question why the United States has Guantanamo Bay, for example. It’s not like we’re on good terms with Cuba) The United States also owns land that shouldn’t belong to us because we gave it away under signed treaties. There can be no call for consistent application of “treaty law” without the United States losing a significant amount of land.
Argentina went to war with Great Britain over the Malvinas Islands. Those islands belonged to Argentina until they were taken in the mid-1800s. Britain argues that 150 years of ownership gives them the rights to that land. Argentina, not surprisingly, doesn’t agree and still doesn’t recognize Great Britain’s right to have those islands.
There are myriad stories around the world. If you go back far enough, your land probably belonged to someone else, even in ancient lands like Egypt and China. It’s not easy to sort through all of those claims.
And territorial disputes are merely one aspect of the world’s conflicts. If you live in a country that has benefitted from colonialism, wars, etc., you favor something like the first scenario, where everybody just keeps what they have right now. If you live in a country that isn’t at the top of the pecking order, or if you are one of the powerless people in a powerful nation, you’d like to see past injustices corrected.
An excellent article that looks at the effects that past colonialism still has in today’s world is Why Can’t People Feed Themselves? by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collin. It’s worth a read.