Recolonisation: Timor, Kosovo, Iraq, ...?

The UN protectorate in Timor was the first full recolonisation of former colonial territory by western powers. 25 years ago that would have been unthinkable. Ironically, the UN in 1990 declared the 'International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism' - yet the decade ended with 'white rule' restored in Timor. In 2002 it became nominally independent, although still 100% dependent on international aid, and in 2006 Australian troops again took control of security. Kosovo is still a protectorate, although now with an elected parliament, and a new protectorate has been created in western Macedonia. All these recolonisations were UN-sponsored, and that might yet happen in Iraq. Haïti also got a new American-appointed and UN-sanctioned government in 2004. With much less media attention, and without UN authorisation, Australia imposed a mandate on the Solomon Islands in 2003. Last changes 16 January 2007.

The global context

Why is there now a trend to recolonisation, after a historically unique decolonisation in the 1950's and 1960's? Developments in the last 15 years have reversed western attitudes to colonisation, well before the September 11 attacks in 2001. The most important is the strong feeling of cultural superiority in the west, and the belief that liberal values are universal. Universality was always inherent in liberalism, and to a lesser extent in 'democracy' as an ideology. The long-term global expansion of liberal democracy was inevitable, in the sense that any universal ideology will expand spatially, so long as there is no specific opposition to it. In long-term historical perspective, recolonisation is one form that this expansion can take. However, it remains ideologically driven - 'crusade' is a more accurate term than 'imperialism'. Tony Blair's July 2003 speech to the US Congress was a good example of the attitude of universal superiority:

Members of Congress, ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. And anywhere... (APPLAUSE)... Anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police.
The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defense and our first line of attack. And just as the terrorist seeks to divide humanity in hate, so we have to unify it around an idea. And that idea is liberty....(APPLAUSE)... We must find the strength to fight for this idea and the compassion to make it universal.
Address by Tony Blair to a joint meeting of Congress, 17 July 2003.

In a negative sense, the reversal of the de-colonisation of the 1950's and 1960's is facilitated by the renewed western image of non-western countries as 'barbarian', a sea of atrocities. In turn that has facilitated the abandonment of sovereignty doctrines - states can be written off as 'failed states' or rogue states' and invasion is then considered acceptable. In international law and geopolitics, this led to the acceptance of interventionist doctrines by the UN, which previously emphasised the doctrine of sovereignty. Interventionist international military strategy and tactics have been created, to replace the traditional ceasefire-line presence of UN troops.

Inside the western countries (the potential and actual recolonisers) intervention lobbies have emerged, typically NGO's with good access to the media. Their have origins in the peace movement and Third-World movements, which have sometimes turned full circle from the 'anti-imperialism' of 30 years ago. As a political force for intervention, these lobbies have converged with the traditional foreign-policy elites in western countries. This convergence was symbolised by the appointment of Médecins sans Frontières founder Bernard Kouchner as UN governor of Kosovo. Within the target states, the potential colonies, a western-funded and usually English-speaking NGO elite has emerged, the so-called 'democratic forces'. These are the kind of people who appear on CNN after a western intervention, to express their gratitude, in excellent English.

In contrast to earlier colonial practice, recolonisation is nominally international or multi-state - traditional colonies had one colonial power only. In practice a tendency already apparent in the League of Nations mandates is repeated: the nearest western power plays a dominant role (in Timor, that was Australia).

The definition of colonialism

There is a strong visual image of colonialism (often from historical films), but it is surprisingly difficult to define it. In Europe secessionist movements often claim that their country was "colonised". But is Scotland really a 'colony' of England? Was Slovakia really 'colonised' by the Czech-dominated government of Czechoslovakia?

I think a colonial relationship is defined by two things: first, there is an inequality of power and administration, and secondly this inequality is along ethnic lines. Colonial territories are sharply distinct from the nation state, because they reject the classic nationalist principle that ethnic group, citizenship, state power, and state boundaries, should all coincide.

It is this fundamental colonial relationship which was so clearly visible in Timor during the Australian occupation. White Australian troops patrolled the streets of Dili, but the inhabitants of Timor were not allowed to send troops to patrol the streets of Canberra, and search white Australians for weapons. Timorese can not vote in Australian elections, or sit in the Australian parliament, or even permanently reside in Australia - but Australian electors took decisions affecting Timor, and will do that again after the re-intervention in 2006. There is an asymmetric exercise of power in such protectorates, and the asymmetry is ethnic.

On this definition of colonialism, the French overseas departments (DOM) are no longer colonies. Their inhabitants now have French passports and full citizenship: they vote in French national elections, receive the same social security payments as in France, and are free to travel to France at any time. When the territories were true colonies, only Europeans and a tiny 'native elite' had such rights. No DOM status, or anything like it, is planned for Iraq. (Think of how Tony Blair would react, to the idea of paying British benefits to the Iraqi unemployed).

The most comprehensive definition of colonialism I could find is from the Office of Tibet site: ironically this Tibetan government-in-exile implicitly promotes western intervention in Tibet. This is the summary from the Introduction, there is more detail in Chapter II: Doctrines on Colonialism

Criteria of colonialism

Establishment of Colonial Rule
Colonial rule is established in one or more of the following three ways: military conquest and subsequent annexation; the conclusion of a treaty or contract; the creation of merchant enclaves followed by settlement.

Colonialism always involves the migration of people from a metropolitan state to a satellite region, but the magnitude of settlement differs from case to case.

Characteristics of Colonial Administration
The original population of the colonised territory is not, or poorly, represented in the colonial government. The interests of the original inhabitants are largely determined by the metropolitan, colonial power.

Colonial rule superimposes national borders. In most cases these borders do not correspond to the local community structure(s) or to the political history of the colonised territory. Often the territory in question had not been organized as a nation state before the advent of the colonial power.

Economic development is planned and imposed by the colonial power and often benefits the metropolitan state at the expense of the satellite region. Resources located in the colony are transferred to or used for the benefit of the metropolitan state and for further processing and marketing by that state.

Civilising mission: the colonial power undertakes to 'civilise' the original inhabitants of a colony. The underlying presumption is that the colonial power possesses a culture/civilisation which is superior in relation to the culture/civilisation of the colonised population(s). In addition, the colonial power often claims that the original population of the colonised territory is unable to rule itself for reasons of political immaturity or economic backwardness.

Cultural exchange between settlers/representatives from the metropolitan state and the original inhabitants of the colony is asymmetrical. The latter adopt more aspects of the culture of the former than vice versa.

Maintenance of Colonial Authority
The reactions of colonial powers to colonial resistance of colonised peoples are based on strategies to eliminate dissent.

The maintenance of colonial authority involves a permanent military presence, consisting of soldiers from the metropolitan state or local soldiers under the command of officers from the metropolitan state.

The maintenance of authority is often strengthened by a policy of population transfer.

Colonised people(s) experience colonial rule as alien. Similarly, citizens from the metropolitan state continue to make a distinction between themselves and the original inhabitants of the colony.

Outcome of the Colonisation Process
Colonisation may result in one or more of the following situations: 1) decolonisation, 2) complete take-over of the colony by the metropolitan settlement community, 3) the continuation of colonial rule over a territory which retains most of its pre-colonial identity or 4) integration into the metropolitan state.

None of the aforementioned criteria is essential in establishing that a certain situation can be described in terms of colonialism . A combination of a number of these criteria is sufficient for determining that a situation is at least de-facto colonial.

The Tibet site has an obvious bias: it is trying to avoid the 'salt-water doctrine', which says colonies are separated from the coloniser, usually by sea. (Since Tibet borders on China, it can not be a Chinese colony under the 'salt-water' definition). This is also an issue in defining recolonisation: is Kosovo a 'colony' of Germany and Britain because they station troops there? I use the term recolonisation to apply to territories in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but not to interventions by European powers in Central and Eastern Europe. In historical perspective, European wars among European states are not unusual, but the high tide of European colonialism lasted at most 200 years.

The recolonisation of Iraq

The listed features of colonialism accurately described the American-led protectorate in Iraq. The implied scenario has however fallen victim to the insurgency, civil war, and disintegration - the unexpected outcome of the recolonisation attempt. The 'protectorate formerly ruled by Saddam' was established by a military conquest - in retrospect only a partial conquest. The first post-invasion public administration was provided by the 'Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance' (OHRA) - despite the name, a military organisation. An elite of 'internationals' was ready to descend on Iraq - as in Kosovo - but deteriorating security made that impossible. Like so-called 'neutral' aid workers, such 'internationals' are usually indirectly funded by western governments. Attacks on the UN and Red Cross offices were undoubtedly related to their true geopolitical status - administrators of an American-led occupation. Many aid organisations subsequently left.

The original population of Iraq had no political representation in the interim administration. All real power rested with the US military, who command the other troop contingents. As their control eroded, no clear and/or legitimate government took its place. They are the nearest thing to 'rulers of Iraq', until they withdraw. The assemblies which drafted the Iraqi constitution were US-appointed, and all election candidates were US-approved. Decisions were indeed made in the interests of the western powers, until they lost control: 'economic development' meant that the single exportable resource of Iraq - oil - was indeed be transferred to the western states.

'Civilising' the country, or 'democratising' it, as they now say, is no longer on the agenda in Iraq. Population transfers are: under US occupation, Sunni-Arab migrants to Kurdish northern Iraq fled south - several hundred thousand, on some estimates. Now, the rest of the population has started to flee the country. Some people in the US foreign policy establishment want Iraq restructured as an ethnic federation: an all-out civil war would suit their purposes. Like Yugoslavia, Iraq was assembled from the components of former empires, and could face the same 'dismemberment by bloodbath'. Whatever the developments, most people in Iraq (Kurd, Sunni and Shia) experience the occupation administration as alien - and the citizens of the US and Britain will continue to see the entire Iraqi population as different, and generally inferior, to themselves.

It is the differential exercise of power which makes the recolonisation immoral. As in Timor, there is no question of the Iraqi population being allowed any participation in the political life of their new rulers. Although their city might be occupied by British troops, and governed by a British administrator, they will get no vote in British elections. They will have no right to demonstrate in London, even if they could afford to travel there. The fate of Iraq was decided by a remote and contemptuous population, the western electorates. This is clearly unjust, and 'government with contempt' tends to create abuses and atrocities. Iraq proved to be no exception. Now it has ended with a civil war.

The recolonisation certainly can not be justified on the grounds of 'democracy', Tony Blair was elected in Britain, and George Bush was elected (fairly or not) in the United States. Neither of them ever had any democratic mandate to govern Iraq, and no political process of any kind conferred their power there. They ruled Iraq purely by the exercise of military force, and where that force weakened, their authority disappeared. With respect to the Iraqi population, they are just as much a dictator as Saddam Hussein.

The recolonisation ideology

At its simplest, a protectorate in Iraq is simply 'white rule'. The whites have the military power, they rule the natives, the natives have nothing to say - it's as simple as that. Predictably, the natives rebelled. The worse the insurgency becomes, the more brutal the exercise of foreign power. Things will only get worse in Iraq. Unfortunately, this ethnic inequality is likely to be repeated in the coming years, as more countries are subjected to recolonisation. The core beliefs of the recolonisers include a belief in the absolute truth of their own values: they reject scepticism and relativism. They believe in the universality of these values, without geographic or ethnic limits. They have a crusader attitude, believing that there is a moral duty to bring these values to the whole world, by force if necessary. They see themselves as part of a morally superior movement (sometimes called 'global civil society' and they have a contempt for other values (cultural and moral). At heart, however, the recolonisation movement is a repeat of the racism, jingoism, and imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When it is challenged, it is likely to produce a repeat of the decolonisation wars of the 1950's and 1960's.
British ministers' claim to be defending civilisation against barbarity in Iraq finds a powerful echo in 1950s Kenya, when Britain sought to smash an uprising against colonial rule. Yet, while the British media and political class expressed horror at the tactics of the Mau Mau, the worst abuses were committed by the occupiers. The colonial police used methods like slicing off ears, flogging until death and pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight.
The colonial precedent, Mark Curtis, The Guardian, October 26, 2004.

A media stereotype of western intervention paved the way for the invasions of recent years. It too is a reworked version of colonial racist attitudes: the world outside the western democracies is presented as barbarian, and the 'native' population as either violent and oppressive (warlords, militiamen, torturers), or as victims (refugees, children, corpses at mass graves). The victims are depicted as passive, powerless, and incapable of independent action: a typical image is of 'native' women weeping at a grave. In contrast, 'white' soldiers and aid-workers are presented as forceful and active, capable of responding to the situation, as helpers (for instance bringing food). The 'native' population is not shown in active or helping roles, but as passive and grateful, usually in a childlike way (clapping, singing, dancing). A typical image is the native population cheering as 'white' troops enter a town. Western post-intervention reactions are in the form of measured statements (from leaders and spokesmen).

I put the words "white" and "native" in quotation marks: many of these TV stereotypes emerged during Balkan intervention, where all the war parties were white Europeans. All these stereotypes were visible in western media reports from Iraq, although they were overshadowed by the battle reports - the intensity of fighting was much greater in Iraq.

A large number of organisations have contributed to the current trend to recolonisation. It is possible to speak of a recolonisation lobby, although there is no central organisation. The most important are the interventionist support groups, promoting western intervention in a specific territory - East Timor, Tibet, Kurdistan. Ironically, many of them began as 'anti-imperialist' groups - some more than a generation ago. The right-wing neoconservatives in the United States are therefore not the only advocates of wars of conquest. They played no role in, for instance, the British recolonisation of Sierra Leone.

Closely related to these political campaign groups, are the thousands of NGO's concerned with the South, the possible targets of recolonisation. It is difficult to draw a clear line between the political action groups and the NGO's - membership and activities often overlap. Collectively they see themselves as a form of global movement, with some shared values: for this perception, terms like 'global civil society' are used. However, the reality is that most NGO's are from OECD member states. In fact, many of these 'non-governmental' organisations are indirectly funded by western governments.

Intellectuals, especially academics, are also important in the recolonisation trend. Some are only concerned with a specific territory, some campaign occasionally for specific interventions. However the most influential are those intellectuals, who have directly attacked the concept of sovereignty. Some of these theorists, such as Richard Falk, have being doing that for decades: they now see their ideas adopted by the academic establishment.

Aid organisations, including the International Red Cross, have formed a consistent lobby against sovereignty and independence. Almost without exception, they are western in origin, and committed to western liberal values. That background applies also to human rights organisations. They differ from the aid organisations, in their commitment to a specific political philosophy: rights-based liberalism. There are some similar organisations promoting more specialised political philosophies, such as press freedom. The organisations of the billionaire George Soros deserve a a category of their own: not just because they are very large, well-organised, and well-funded, but because they promote the political philosophy of one man, the liberal theorist Karl Popper.

The elite foreign-policy organisations in western countries had shifted to an interventionist consensus, even before 11 September 2001. Some of these are private foundations, others are quasi-academic (although access to them is tightly controlled). These are organisations such as the US Council on Foreign Relations, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), or the Instituut Clingendael in the Netherlands. The trend to recolonisation is also dependent on the western media: especially the large commercial and national broadcasters, and the commercial press. Although there are some genuine independent media in western countries, they lack the resources to provide an alternative to the mainstream media. Inside organisations like CNN or the BBC, the politics are clear: everyone shares a consensus, that liberal market democracies are superior to all other forms of society. Elements of liberal philosophy, such as human rights, are treated as self-evident and absolute truths. Together with the paternalistic and openly colonial attitudes, often visible in their coverage, this is a background for pro-intervention campaigns.

It is too early to conclude that these groups have learned their lesson from the events in Iraq. They may be politically embarrassed, but their underlying conviction of superiority will probably drive them to new intervention campaigns in the coming years, and ultimately that will result in new attempts at recolonisation.