In the political science literature, an international transitional administration (ITA) refers to the temporary assumption of responsibility of the principal governance functions of a state or territory by an international organization or organizations, often but not always led by the United Nations. In many instances in the recent past, ITAs have been employed in response to so-called weak and failed states, and in particular to conflict situations where the conflict has severely enfeebled the state and the internal situation has been a highly unstable one. The purpose of the ITA in such circumstances is twofold: to administer the territory while at the same time fostering the development of autonomous capacity for self-government. In some cases an unresolved dispute between the parties may be an obstacle to achieving full self-government and the ITA will thus also have responsibility for facilitating a resolution of the dispute or for helping to implement a decision or a settlement when one has been reached. ITAs may also be used to effect the transfer of sovereignty or territorial control from one entity to another.
International transitional administrations derive their origins from a large body of cognate historical experiences, primarily in the first half of the 20th century. International organizations first exercised territorial administration with the International Control Commission for Albania (1913-14), and the League of Nations administrations of the Saar Basin (1920-35), the Free City of Danzig (1920-39), the Colombian town and district of Leticia (1933-34) and Upper Silesia after the First World War. The United Nations first exercised territorial administration as part of the UN Operation in Congo (UNOC) between 1960 and 1964 and with the administration of West Irian from 1962 to 1963 (UNTEA). Other transitional administrations were planned but never executed for the Fiume in Dalmatia in 1919, Memel in what is now Lithuania between 1921 and 1923, Alexandretta in Syria in 1937, and Jerusalem and Trieste, both in 1947. These historical experiences and blueprints have been the source of inspiration for the wave of contemporary initiatives, whose intellectual origins lie with the end of the Cold War. In the early post-Cold War period, the idea of ‘United Nations conservatorship’ (Helman and Ratner 1992-93), ‘international trusteeship’ (Lyon 1993) and similar notions gained currency among scholars and analysts as a possible means of coping with the problem of ‘state failure.’ These ideas were often adopted and adapted for use by policymakers for the purpose of post-conflict peace- and state-building. This trend was reinforced by the large number of international military interventions of a humanitarian nature in this period and the view that intervening states had a ‘responsibility to rebuild’, as expressed in the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS): ‘[I]f military intervention is taken—because of a breakdown or abdication of a state’s own capacity and authority in discharging its “responsibility to protect”—there should be a genuine commitment to helping to build a durable peace, and promoting good governance and sustainable development’.
ITAs are known informally as ‘international trusteeships’ or ‘international protectorates’, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in the literature. However, ‘trusteeship’ has very precise meaning, as defined by Chapter XII of the UN Charter, which limits the use of that institution to certain non-self-governing territories administered in conformity with the purposes and procedures of the UN trusteeship system, whereas a ‘protectorate’ is a state or territory whose government has agreed to surrender the conduct of its foreign relations, and possibly other sovereign competences, to a state. There is now extensive scholarship on ITAs. Most contemporary scholarship has been undertaken in the fields of international relations and international law but there have also been important contributions from economists and political philosophers (e.g., Del Castillo 2008; Bain 2003). Analysis of ITAs has tended to be of two kinds: descriptive-evaluative analysis that has been concerned with documenting the operational challenges and assessing how well these challenges have been met (e.g., Dobbins et al. 2005), and normative analysis that has been concerned with the norms that underpin post-bellum international reconstruction efforts (e.g., Bass 2004). Contemporary scholarly debate about ITAs has revolved around a number of issues. Among the more prominent has been the legitimacy of an institution that, while seeking to enhance local capacity for self-governance, nevertheless constitutes alien rule and thus a violation of the principle of self-determination (Zaum 2007). This problem, which is compounded by the very limited accountability that ITAs typically have to the local population (Caplan 2005), has called into question the legitimacy of ITAs and even led to charges of neo-colonialism (Wilde 2008). Some scholars therefore advocate efforts to better accommodate local interests and concerns through the adoption of ‘complementary practices related to self-determination and agency, democracy, human rights and needs, and a rule of law with customary social support networks, and customary forms of governance and political order’ (Richmond 2010). Another matter of significant debate has been how one measures the success (or not) of ITAs. One can judge the ITA against the specific goals laid out in its mandate but those goals may vary depending in part on the prevailing political weather at the time of an administration’s authorization. One can employ general indicators of success instead, such as a ‘stable and lasting peace’ or the ‘consolidation of democratic authority’, but indicators this broad often reflect long-term trends that make it difficult to isolate the specific contribution that the ITA may have made to their realization. It is partly because there is often no agreed upon criteria that assessments of ITAs vary significantly. This is an issue that concerns the evaluation of peace operations more generally (Call 2008).
Recent practice of ITAs extends to the UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES) from 1996-98, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) from 1999-2002, the international administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1996 and the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) from 1999. One can also include the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) from 1992-93, which, however, possessed only supervisory and not plenary administrative powers. In all of these cases, the UN Security Council has played a significant role, whether in the initiation, legitimization, or oversight of the transitional administrations. The relatively high cost of transitional administrations, together with the unease of exercising sovereignty on behalf of a people, have generated interest in alternatives to ITAs. One alternative is the ‘light footprint’ approach that has characterized international assistance efforts in post-Taliban Afghanistan (Chesterman 2004). Such an approach, rather than supplanting local authority, seeks instead to reinforce local capacity. Another alternative, albeit one that is conceived in the same spirit as ITAs, is ‘shared sovereignty’ arrangements that involve oversight or control by external actors of some of the domestic authority structures of a state or territory on a consensual basis (Krasner 2004).
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