As I intimated at the outset of this chapter, transitional foreign administrations often elicit the charge that there is an inherent tension between their ends (establishing secure democratic self-government) and the means which they employ (in effect, those of a benevolent dictatorship).-7 According to those critics, transitional foreign administrations are a thinly veiled form of Western imperialism, or, as one commentator puts it, ‘colonialism redux’.-8

There are three ways of handling the objection. One can accept it and conclude that transitional foreign administrations are unjustifiable. Alternatively, one can bite its painful bullet and go as far as to claim, following some commentators, that transitional foreign administrations in practice have not been colonial enough and ought to have gone further than they did in imposing their rule on war-torn communities. Or one can attempt to show that transitional foreign administrations need not be ruled as colonies, and that while the objection perhaps hits one target—transitional foreign administrations as they have sometimes operated—it nonetheless misses the main one—transitional foreign administrations as they ought to operate.

Unsuprisingly perhaps I shall go down the third route. Beforehand, however, let me provide a working definition of colonialism. This is not an easy task, for the practices and institutions which are labelled ‘colonial’ are extraordinarily diverse: they include largely mercantile enterprises as carried out by the Portuguese and the Dutch in Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; European white settlers emigrating, acquiring land in, and governing the Americas, Africa, and Oceania from the sixteenth century onwards; British expansion, without en masse settlements, in India; French expansion, with such settlements, in North Africa; Russia’s conquest of Central and North East Asia from the fifteenth century onwards; the Han Chinese’ expansion into territories (such as Manchuria) which are now part of contemporary China. Still, those practices and institutions are usually characterized by proponents and foes as the political, cultural, and economic subjection of a people by another: political subjection, in the sense that the majority of colonized populations not only have no control over who governs them and how they are governed but in addition are governed by actors who are alien to them and perceived as such;29 cultural subjection, in that they are coerced into endorsing the norms and values of the colonizers; economic subjection, in the manifold sense that they are either enslaved or have little choice but to work for very low salaries in colonizer-owned businesses, that they are expropriated from their land, and that the natural resources which colonizers extract from the land are then sold at a low price to colonizers’ markets. Whether or not colonialism differs from imperialism need not detain us here. Whereas the latter, unlike the former, normally denotes that those who govern over the subject population also take possession of the latter’s territory, there are good reasons to think that territorial acquisition is not what heart of UN missions, that establishing the rule of law in war-torn communities will necessarily lead to a decrease in criminal violence. Similarly, see M. Ignatieff, Empire LiteNation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (London: Vintage, 2003).

29 I say ‘the majority’ for local indigenous political and economic elites actively collaborated with colonizers: otherwise Britain would not have been able to rule India, whose population totalled 250 million at the apex of the British Empire, with a corps of only 1000 administrators and an army of 100,000 soldiers. But the fact that the colonizers are alien to the colonized, are so perceived by the latter, and themselves conceive of themselves as alien, thus distinguishes colonial power from (e.g.) the power which a dictator exercises over his own people. The exceedingly short description I give here of colonial practices and institutions is drawn in part from W. Reinhard, A Short History of Colonialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011). For an illuminating account of Britain’s colonial expansion, see J. Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (London: Penguin Books, 2012).

is central, and according to its critics, centrally wrong, about colonialism. Rather, what is wrong, if anything at all, is that one people should subject another people to political, cultural, and exploitative economic control without their consent, whether or not such subjection is accompanied by or occurs through taking over the latter’s territory.[1] [2]

My concern here is not to settle whether the objection’s description of colonialism as a threefold subjection of one people by another is historically accurate. I suspect that it is not, not least because it presupposes that a colonial power is a unified entity with a unified and systematic will to oppress, and that a colonized population is a unified entity wholly unable to resist oppression. There is good historical evidence to reject this kind of oversimplifying narrative.31 However, I will accept it for the sake of argument. If that is really the best way to understand colonialism, then colonialism is indeed grievously wrong for the aforementioned reasons.

Now, to assess the objection in the present context, we must first consider its premise, to the effect that transitional foreign administrations are really just like colonial powers. In order to do so, we must determine whether, functionally, transitional foreign administrations carry out the same tasks and policies, and in the same ways, as did colonial powers. We must also determine whether, from a justificatory point of view, the best case for this particular mode of governance is in effect the same as justifications standardly advanced in support of colonial enterprises. Given that the colonialism objection draws whatever strength it has from Western (and notably French and British) colonial practices in Asia and Africa from the eighteenth century onwards, I shall use the latter as my basis for comparison.

At first sight, there are important similarities between the French and British administration of their Asian and African colonies on the one hand, and transitional foreign administrations on the other hand. In just the same way as former colonial powers enacted laws and administered justice over colonized populations, oversaw the building and provision of basic infrastructures such as roads and sanitation, and took a hand in the delivery of (some form) of education and healthcare—so have transitional foreign administrations as a matter of fact, and so should they do as a matter of principle (or so I have argued). More importantly still, in just the same way as colonial powers conceived of their colonies and their populations as essentially foreign both territorially and culturally, transitional foreign administrators are outsiders in those same respects in relation to the target post-conflict communities.

In functional terms, thus, there is something to the premise of the colonialism objection. Upon closer inspection, however, there are profound differences between those two modes of government. First, without wanting in any way to occlude the fact that foreign officials have been guilty of grievous wrongdoings in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, transitional foreign administrations have not been accompanied by the large-scale killings, starvation, exploitation and all-round misery that are characteristic of colonial rule as imposed by the French and the British.^ The question, then, is whether transitional foreign administrations as they ought to operate—fairly, transparently, in a human rights—respecting way—are simply an idealized form of fair, transparent, human rights—respecting colonialism. Perhaps they are, but then, it is hard to see what is morally objectionable about the ways either would, so idealized, operate. (I shall turn to the justificatory dimension of the colonial objection presently.)

Second, as a matter of fact, transitional foreign administrations have overseen extensive programmes of aid and reconstruction in target communities, have helped build local penal institutions, and provided assistance with reconciliatory measures such as I will describe in ch. 9. In a similar vein, they have sought to reform taxation and fiscal policies in such a way as to enable emerging regimes to become financially self-sufficient. This is not to deny the corruption (on the part of both local and international actors) which often accompanies such reforms. Nor is it to deny that multinational corporations, with the support of their own government and international institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, have often succeeded in pushing for the kind economic reforms in post-conflict communities which would best serve their own, and not local populations’, interests.33 But even if economic measures to the benefit of participating actors are necessary to garner the requisite support, it is neither a defining feature of those administrations, nor part of the best normative justifications for their establishment, that they should allow for self-serving economic reforms. To the extent that the French and British governments of the day embarked on colonial expansion with a view to seek and control outside markets for the benefit of their own people and assisted in their nationals’ exploitative practices, in that respect at least, transitional foreign administrations are not a colonial enterprise.

  • 32 See Darwin, Unfinished Empire, ch. 5.
  • 33 On economic reforms and transitional foreign administrations, see Caplan, International Governance of War-Torn Territories, ch. 6. The best-known example of private sector involvement in post-conflict reconstruction is that of Iraq, where US corporations were awarded contracts worth billions of dollars. There are other cases though, some of which are described in, e.g., M. Bhatia, ‘Postconflict Profit: The Political Economy of Intervention’, Global Governance 11 (2005): 205—24; A. Gerson, ‘Peace Building: The Private Sector’s Role’, The American Journal of International Law 95 (2001): 102—19. There is an interesting debate in the empirical literature on the order in which, and speed at which, transitional administrators should proceed: should they first set up properly functioning political and judicial institutions? Should they go for rapid or slow democratization? Should they engage in a shock therapy of economic and social liberalization? For an influential defence of the ‘institutions first, go-slow’ view, see R. Paris, At War's End—Building Peace After Civil Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. For criticisms of that view, see D. Chandler, Empire in Denial—The Politics of State Building (London: Pluto, 2006). Chandler’s point is that, in practice, the approach has led international actors such as the US and the EU to pretend that they were building up independent states in, e.g., Bosnia, whereas in fact, they are still in effect governing from far above without proper accountability. He may be right, but this does not impugn my normative, in-principle case for transitional foreign administrations.

Third, it is inherent in a transitional foreign administration that it should not consist in territorial and jurisdictional annexation. To be sure, its officials exercise powers of government over individuals who are not their compatriots or, if they are, who have not authorized them as their compatriots to do so in the same way as citizens of a democratic community elect their compatriots into political office. Moreover, to the extent that local officials assist transitional administrators in the task of political and economic reconstruction, in the initial stages, at least, their role is, precisely, to assist and not to lead—in the same way as local elites assisted French and British colonizers in their expansionist enterprise. However, a morally justified transitional foreign administration is not sovereign over the community which it governs in the way Britain was sovereign over India and France over Algeria. Sovereignty still resides in individual members of that community who have not forfeited their claim collectively to govern themselves. It is precisely for that reason that transitional foreign administrations are under an obligation to provide the conditions under which those individuals will be able to exercise the sovereignty rights which they already have. This means, inter alia, establishing or consolidating the rule of law by attending not just to its formal aspects (constitutional mechanisms, judicial procedures, etc.) but also and equally importantly by attending to existing social-cum-legal norms which might undermine or on the contrary buttress it; empowering those individuals to support and serve in democratic institutions at the regional and local level; conducting impartial and fair elections; holding itself accountable to those which it governs; and being open to the possibility of reconciling the imperative of democratization with seemingly conflicting local agendas.[3] [4]

Furthermore, and crucially, it means working from the very beginning to a clearly defined exit timetable. When elections should be held and when the transitional administration’s exit should take place cannot be settled in the abstract, though there are good reasons to think, on the basis of available evidence, that holding elections too early and exiting as soon as elections are conducted might lead to renewed instability.35 The key point here is that a transitional foreign administration by definition is established and structured with a view to relinquishing control over the target community. Neither Britain nor France began and continued to govern their respective colonies with that particular end in sight.

Finally, although it is true that the language of human rights informs and justifies transitional foreign rule, and sometimes is inconsistent with local norms and practices, to claim that target populations are victims of a form of ideological and cultural subjection in the way (e.g.) non-Christians in India were expected to convert to Christianity and renounce their own cultural roots, is to do poor justice to the fact that the moral requirements encapsulated by human rights are some of the most basic requirements under which human beings are held—not to kill, not to torture, not to rape, to provide for basic sustenance, healthcare, and education, and to provide for a formal say in the political organization of one’s society. This is not to deny, of course, that the language of human rights has often been used by Western powers as a cloak for their own exploitative practices. In this respect, the colonialism objection in its functional variant does hit this particular target; but unless it is wedded to a form of moral relativism which I reject at the outset, it misses the target which really matters, to wit, transitional foreign administrations as they ought to operate.

Proponents of the colonialism objection might perhaps resist my rebuttal on the following grounds: even if, functionally, transitional foreign administrations are not guilty of the crimes of colonialism, the ways in which they are justified are sufficiently similar to justifications for colonialism for the objection to stand. As I shall now argue, however, of the arguments which have been offered in support of colonial expansion, two stand out, only the second one of which provides support for the objection—and exceedingly limited support at that.

The first argument—to be found inter alia in some of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on Algeria—holds that a nation may appropriate land and subjugate a people if it serves its interests. Anything that the mother country does to or for colonized populations must promote those interests.36 Now, as a matter of fact, transitional foreign administrations have been justified by appealing to the necessity of preserving peace and promoting human rights in the target territories—as well as by the imperative of preserving, if not international, at least regional peace. This at any rate is one way to interpret the UN’s use of Ch. VII as a basis for its governance intervention in East Timor. There is a sense, thus, in which justifications for transitional foreign administrations have appealed to the interests of outsiders. However, this is not enough to buttress the colonialism objection, for two reasons. First, European settlers’ interests in subjecting African and South East Asian communities to their political rule and in exploiting their resources were not important enough to be protected by rights: by contrast, regional instability of the kind witnessed in, e.g., Bosnia issues in severe rights violations outside the target community, which in turn may well justify outside governance. Second, even

36 See, especially, Tocquevilles 1841 ‘Essay on Algeria’, in P. T. Coleman, M. Deutsch and E. C. Marcus (ed.), The Handbook of Conflict Resolution—Theory and Practice, 3rd edn. (San Francisco, Ca.: Jossey Bass, 2006). The 1847 reports which he wrote on Algeria are more nuanced: while considerations of France’s national interest still frame his recommendations for good colonial governance of the province, he insists that colonial administrators and their Paris’ masters not lose sight of the well-being of colonized populations. For a fascinating insight into British and French political thought on colonialism from 1770 to 1850, see J. Pitts, A Turn to Empire: the Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005).

when appeals to outsiders’ interests partly shape justifications for transitional foreign administrations, the case for the latter also and centrally rests on the interests of administered populations—unlike the Tocquevillian argument under study.

It is at this point that the justificatory strand of the colonialism objection really comes into its own. Colonialism, it holds, has mostly been justified on paternalistic lines, as a ‘civilizing mission’ undertaken by enlightened liberal, capitalist, developed, and Christian nations for the sake of backwards, authoritarian, agrarian, underdeveloped and heathen communities. This is a familiar argument, of which J. S. Mill, who worked for the East India Company until it lost its Charter in 1858, is one of the best-known proponents in British political thought. It has enough similarities, at least superficially, with justifications for transitional foreign administrations to deserve serious consideration.[5] For although endorsing such administrations need not imply a commitment to the view that the individuals who are so administered are backward and culturally (let alone biologically) inferior, it assumes that they are not yet able to govern themselves and need help to do so. Replace ‘we must help Indians and Africans to become civilized peoples able to govern themselves—and against their will if necessary’ with ‘we must enable war-torn populations to become human rights— respecting communities—against their will if necessary’: thus said, there seems to be little to distinguish colonial administrations from the administrations under study here. Or so the objection goes.

However, the ‘civilizing mission’ rationale for colonialism is not the rationale for transitional foreign administrations. It conceives of the target people as a corporate entity which is unable to govern itself and which it is appropriate to force to be free for its own good, in just the same way as a child is unable to lead his life rationally and autonomously and must be forced by his parents down the path of an ultimately autonomous life. However, the justification for transitional foreign administrations which I offered in s.8.3 takes a rather different view. To begin with, as I argued there, many institutional arrangements which taken together comprise a transitional foreign administration must elicit the consent of those subject to their directives if those directives are to be binding—in so far as those arrangements specify declarative rights and obligations. The colonialism objection does not work against those facets of the case for transitional foreign administrations.

More importantly still, that case flows from the two-pronged recognition that a community so administered comprises agents who, if left to their own devices, would commit, or continue to commit, grievous wrongdoings towards their fellow community members and/or other parties, and that institutions are needed to enable individuals to fulfil their duties towards one another—which institutions transitional foreign administrations help set up. Setting up such administrations without the consent of those subject to their directives does not always wrong them. Remember: when the agreement which establishes a transitional foreign administration is declarative, consent is not a necessary condition for its validity (though it might have to be sought as a matter of expediency). Moreover, to the extent that directives issued by a transitional foreign administration aim to thwart or punish grievous human rights violations as carried out by some members of the target populations against others, the former’s consent is not required either to render those directives binding. To put the point in more policy-oriented terms, involving local officials in the tasks of governance and reconstruction might in fact worsen the plight of those officials’ compatriots if those officials—for example, police officers—become involved in corruption, discrimination on ethnic grounds, human trafficking. This would provide a justification for not involving them—in other words, for lustrating them not punitively, but defensively.[6]

To put my reply differently, the rationale for outside non-consensual interference is this: some members of the target community have during the war denied equal status to fellow members and (in some cases) committed grievous wrongdoings not just against them but also against outsiders, and would continue to do so if unimpeded. As a result, those agents have (at least temporarily) forfeited their claim to take part on an equal footing in the governance of their community.39 This is a far cry from holding that beneficiaries of transitional foreign administrations must be protected from themselves thanks to institutional arrangements which deny them the status of equal partners. On the contrary, it is precisely because they are deemed as worthy of concern and respect as everyone else in the world and are endowed with the same human rights and duties that transitional foreign administrations are (at least sometimes and subject to aforementioned conditions) morally justified.


In this chapter, I have defended the view that entrusting a transitional foreign administration with the task of governing a war-torn community is sometimes justified, on the grounds that if properly conducted, it can better enable community members to enjoy their human rights and fulfil their fundamental obligations to one another and to third parties than available and feasible alternatives. Pace the colonialism objection, endorsing this view need not commit one to denying the principle of fundamental equality—on the contrary, in fact.

Finally, if transitional foreign administrations are morally justified (subject to the conditions delineated below), then a fortiori so are less invasive modes of foreign involvement in post-conflict institutional rebuilding whereby foreign actors assist, rather than lead, local agents’ reconstruction efforts—provided of course that the latter do tend towards a justifiedATC peace.

  • [1] In this respect, I accept Lea Ypi’s argument about the wrongness of colonialism, though shalldissent from it in other respects below. See L. Ypi, ‘What is Wrong with Colonialism’, Philosophy &Public Affairs 41 (2013): 158—91. For good definitions of colonialism, see, e.g., D. Butt, ‘Colonialismand Postcolonialism’, in International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2013);M. Kohn, ‘Colonialism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012) (available at
  • [2] With respect to the British colonial empire, Darwin makes that case in Unfinished Empire, 7 (on ruling methods) and ch. 9 (on cultural subjection).
  • [3] On the rule of law under TFAs, see in particular Brooks, ‘The New Imperialism: Violence, Norms,and the “Rule of Law”’. For an overview of tensions between global peace-builders and local agents, see, e.g.,G. Millar, J. 0. van der Lijn and W Verkoren, ‘Peacebuilding Plans and Local Reconfigurations: Frictionsbetween Imported Processes and Indigenous Practices’, International Peacekeeping 20 (2013): 137-43;M. R Freire and P D. Lopes, ‘Peacebuilding in Timor-Leste: Finding a Way between External Interventionand Local Dynamics’, International Peacekeeping 20 (2013): 204-18; S. Hellmueller, ‘The Power ofPerceptions: Localizing International Peacebuilding Approaches’, International Peacekeeping 20 (2013):219-32. Hellmueller’s case study—the UN Mission established in Congo in the late 1990s (MONUC, andnow MONUSCO) —is particularly interesting: on her account, UN peacekeepers concentrated onstate-building and eschewed the task of helping the Congolese to resolve the land conflicts which had, inpart, triggered the war in 1996 and which were still regarded as the main obstacle to peace by the latter.
  • [4] See, e.g., Chesterman, You, The People, ch. 7; Caplan, International Governance of War-TornTerritories, ch. 10; D. Zaum, ‘The Norms and Politics of Exit: Ending Postconflict TransitionalAdministrations’, Ethics & International Affairs 23 (2009): 189-208.
  • [5] Mill’s defences of colonialism appear in a plethora of letters and newspapers articles, notably his‘A Few Words on Non-Intervention’ as well as in his Considerations of Representative Government(esp. ch. 18). For thoughtful analysis, see, e.g., Pitts, A Turn to Empire, ch. 5; D. Bell, ‘John Stuart Millon Colonies’, Political Theory 38 (2010): 34—64. For a superb critical discussion of the notion of‘forcing a people to be free’, see A. I. Applbaum, ‘Forcing a People to Be Free’, Philosophy and PublicAffairs 35 (2007): 359-400.
  • [6] For illustration of this point, see Caplan, International Governance ofWar-Torn Territories, 51—4.On non-punitive lustration in transformative occupations (and, by implication, in transitional foreignadministrations), see Meierhenrich, ‘The Ethics of Lustration’. 39 Thus, Lea Ypi’s powerful critique of colonialism as involving a denial of equality and reciprocitypresupposes that all members of all subject societies have a claim to be treated on a footing of equality.It thus has little to say about outside interference against wrongdoers. See Ypi, ‘What is Wrong withColonialism’.
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