Bosnia: Idea born out of Europe's imperial heyday

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the end it boils down to semantics. Bosnia may be sliding towards the status of de facto protectorate of the United Nations. But what exactly does that mean? In a chequered career, the word "protectorate" has variously been synonymous with dominion, "mandated" territory, "trustee" territory, old fashioned colony and a dictator's brutal land-grab.

Essentially, they were creatures of the European imperial heyday. For 44 years until 1956, Morocco was a prime specimen, split between a Spanish protectorate in the north and a French one in the south of the country. Former South Yemen used to be part of a British protectorate of South Arabia. Somalia, until 1960, was divided between a British protectorate in the north, and an Italian-run trusteeship in the south.

Which leads into the next stage of the protectorate game. When Germany was defeated in 1918, most of its ex-colonies came under the umbrella of the inter-war League of Nations, with various countries mandated to run them. Thus South Africa's increasingly contested stewardship of Namibia, New Zealand's Western Samoa, and former German Togoland, divided in 1918 between Britain and France as mandated powers. Britain was the mandated power for Iraq.

With the remaining reputation of the protectorate destroyed by the Nazi dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the German "protectorate" over Bohemia and Moravia, the names changed. But the game didn't. The League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations. Mandates became trusteeships.

Today the empires have vanished and so have the official protectorates, mandated territories and the rest - now independent states in their own right. The last UN trusteeship, over the Pacific archipelago of Palau, ended in 1995. The sole remnants are 13 tiny British overseas dependencies, a few French islands scattered across the oceans, and US "external territories" like Guam, American Samoa and Puerto Rico.

Even so, undeclared protectorates lived on. Post-war Hungary and Czechoslovakia were nominally independent countries, But as events in 1956 and 1968 displayed, in practice they were at the mercy of Moscow, as the Red Army rolled in to "protect" them from themselves. Or more benignly, take the continuing supervision of France and Italy over the statelets of Monaco and San Marino.

A few years ago, the Somalia of famine, floods and warlords seemed to suggest that the UN protectorate could be a solution for "collapsed" post- colonial states. Unfortunately, Somalia also showed that "nation-building" is a dangerous and thankless business, only for those with the stomach for the long haul. Whether the US and its allies have one for Bosnia is more than doubtful.