It takes an almost reckless optimism to find a silver lining in the abject failure of basic institutions, let alone democracy, to take root in postwar Iraq. But look hard enough and it’s possible to discern one: enhanced legitimacy in the international community for what has been called “neotrusteeship,” an arrangement whereby multilateral institutions temporarily govern states that have collapsed in spasms of misrule and violent conflict.
With so much media focus on Iraq, it is not surprising that many people are unaware that several countries are currently under some form of international trusteeship, and that this trend was well underway prior to the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. A few of these multilateral protectorates are run directly by the UN, though usually as part of a consortium that includes other international bodies, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, the African Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Since the early 1990s, these “transitional administrations,” as they are sometimes called, have operated under various provisions of international law. UN action in Namibia and East Timor was a way of dealing with the unfinished business of decolonization. The UN’s role in Cambodia from 1992–1993 was confined mainly to overseeing the conduct of multiparty elections.
Increasingly, however, trusteeship-like arrangements are designed to respond to “state failure.” The definition of what constitutes a failed state is highly subjective, and the appropriate response to the breakdown of civil authority is among the most controversial issues facing both the UN and its member states. The international community now has a fairly wide range of options, including less extreme measures, to cope with what are sometimes called “crisis states”—those at risk of failing. For these borderline cases, as well as those recovering from failure, the World Bank uses the term Low-Income Countries Under Stress. Some international agencies speak of “fragile states.” The outright assumption of sovereign authority by the UN is in fact rare, but the mere existence of this very real possibility can motivate states to accept “offers” from the UN to dispatch “peacekeeping,” “stabilization,” or “support” missions. Because these are inevitably seen by at least some domestic actors as transitional-authorities-in-waiting, such missions often wield more power than the formal agreements authorizing their presence might suggest.
Bosnia and Kosovo are clearly at the extreme—full trusteeship—end of the response spectrum. Both territories are governed by UN missions, headed by appointees who exercise wide-ranging executive authority. East Timor was ruled as a UN protectorate—though on the basis of a different legal justification—for three years before becoming an independent state in 2002. It still receives substantial UN assistance to sus...
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