Faced with the intractable problems of South Africa, the United Nations Security Council requested an advisory opinion in 1970 from the International Court of Justice, the UN’s principal judicial authority. This time, however, the issue was not South Africa’s policy of apartheid. Instead, it concerned whether the country had rights in the territory of South-West Africa, and, if so, whether they originated in its position as a “mandatory power” for the former German colony under policies established by the League of Nations after World War I.

The UN came to have jurisdiction after the collapse of the League in 1939. During the 1950s and ’60s, South Africa extended its racist laws and practices to South-West Africa. South Africa’s duties toward the territory were the object of decisions by the court in 1950, 1955, 1956, 1962, and 1966. In the last of these, the court declined to pronounce on the substance of a complaint raised by Liberia and Ethiopia. By the president’s deciding vote (heavily influenced by the British judge Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice), the court decided that the two countries did not have a “legal interest” in the case. The decision caused a massive outcry in the developing world, with many states threatening to leave the court. The 1970 initiative, then, offered the court a chance (many thought the last chance) to remove this stain on its image.

The court’s opinion embraced the UN’s official decolonizing ethos. It noted that South Africa’s mandatory rights had been terminated, and that all states were under an obligation not to recognize its presence in what was then known as Namibia. The League of Nations Covenant had used the phrase “sacred trust of civilization” to characterize the mandatory relationship. It was intended to describe the position of the former German and Turkish colonies that the Peace Conference of 1919 transferred to the victorious allies, to be administered by them as “mandate territories.” The court held that such “an international instrument has to be interpreted and applied within the framework of the entire legal system prevailing at the time of its interpretation.” With this statement—among the most famous in its history—the International Court of Justice drew a bright line between the colonial past and the postcolonial present. The time of paternalism, of development in the interests of the “natives” under the purportedly benevolent eye of the “civilized” world, was over, at least in theory. Only one path would be open to the former South African mandate: independence. But it still took a civil war for that goal to be realized, with UN assistance, almost 20 years later, in 1990.

Historians have debated the reasons that the Allies did not simply annex the territories. As Susan Pedersen shows in The Guardians, her brilliant study of the rise and fall of the mandate system, their motives were mixed. It was difficult to back down from Woodrow Wilson’s widely publicized wartime and postwar objective of self-determination for all peoples. Then too, Europeans had become tired of paying the costs of imperialism, widely seen as one of the causes of World War I. But what should be done with the colonies of the vanquished? Some of the territories were strategically important; others had valuable natural resources. The problem was that they also had populations, even very large ones—though sometimes, as Pedersen shows in her account of Australia’s government of New Guinea, they had hundreds of thousands of people whose presence was unknown to the mandatory power. What was to be done with them? It had been a costly war, so it was inconceivable that the territories would just be given away. And to whom could they be given? From the perspective of the European ideology of “civilization,” they were not ready for independence, many not even fit for self-government. The solution was to “internationalize” them—but to do so in a way that allowed the victors to ensure their control. The old Roman-law idea of mandatum seemed a suitable basis for imagining the territories as separate subjects whose “immaturity” called for the appointment of “guardians” to oversee their development.

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Mandate territories were divided into three groups, in accordance with their supposed political and cultural development. “A” mandates consisted of Middle Eastern Arab territories, understood to be close to formal independence. There was no talk of statehood with respect to “B” mandates, composed mainly of the former German colonies in Africa: The administrator (“mandatory power”) was to see to the protection and welfare of their populations. “C” mandates—South- West Africa and former German Pacific islands—were regarded to be at such a low level of civilization that they could be ruled practically as parts of the mandatory power itself.

This idea came naturally to the Western victors. “Internationalism” stood against all of the evils that had led to the war; it had a respected pedigree, especially in 19th-century British politics—and, as it turned out, British individuals and humanitarian societies would become central to the mandate story. Britain had the most experience in colonization, and ideas of “indirect rule,” propagated by the indefatigable civilizer of distant peoples, Lord Lugard, could be easily applied to the collaboration between the League of Nations and the mandatory power. But the system was an abstract compromise: It was legally obscure, and nobody working on the peace treaty at Versailles had a clear idea about how it might operate in practice. For many Europeans, it was imperial business as usual, under a new name. For the liberals, it involved seeing to the welfare of the “natives” and guiding their self-government in a way that would respect their level of civilization. Only a few diplomats thought about the future of the territories in terms of statehood, though that alternative gradually began to receive increasing support as the fragile compromises of the system began to make it inoperative in the 1930s. By the 1960s, independent statehood had become the sole goal for former colonies.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that the system could not work. Even internationalized colonialism was colonialism, with indigenous and colonizing interests fundamentally opposed. But Pedersen doesn’t revel in the wisdom of hindsight. The story she tells about the mandate system is one of ignorance, amateurism, bad faith, and hypocrisy—but also of genuine idealism and diplomatic skill, both in Geneva and “on the ground.” The role of bureaucratic structures and procedures is also highlighted in a way that speaks to the complexity of efforts ongoing even today to inject “development” or the “rule of law” into the government of distant territories. That the mandates were included in the League of Nations Covenant and became part of what the Germans (and many others across Europe) came to see as a Diktatfrieden not only ensured German hostility but would eventually draw the system into the orbit of great-power policies, in which allowing even the Nazis to colonize some territory began to seem feasible at one point.

Like the League of Nations, the mandate system collapsed in 1939. Its underlying complexities, however, remain alive in efforts at “development” and international governance of “transitions” and “fragile states.” Idealism continues to meet with cynicism, local actors with international bureaucrats, under the watchful eye of lobbyists and the international media. Many of today’s intractable international problems are the legacy of colonialism, as mediated through the efforts to prolong the life of an old political system of rule with the help of an international system of oversight: Think not only of South-West Africa but of Palestine. Reading the desperate efforts of the British mandate administrators to create a Legislative Council in which Arabs and Jews would decide on how to live together, one certainly has a feeling of déjà vu. Even if British policy had been consistent, it’s hard to believe that the massive influx of Jews into Palestine in the 1930s could have resulted in a peaceful conclusion: The persecuted Jews would not assent to minority status yet again, and the Arabs would not assent to the loss of their lands. In the end, the British fought all parties and left in 1948 with a proposal for a two-state solution that seems no closer today to being realized than when it was first made.

The League was the first in a series of 20th-century experiments in intergovernmentalism, in which the parents of a treaty saw their baby take on a life of its own, challenging the boundaries of their authority. The Permanent Mandates Commission was set up as a body of nine (eight men, one woman, all white and European except for one Japanese member) to supervise the implementation of the mandate system. Though appointed as “independent experts,” PMC members usually had long careers in domestic government and would rarely act against their home state. But however much the powers tried to ensure that the PMC’s role would be limited to merely formal scrutiny, it soon developed a more ambitious practice. This is familiar: A sense of common purpose will develop among members of an expert body, who will begin to make initiatives, trying to outdo one another. Everybody wants to leave a legacy. Experts become “internationalists” not by secretly working for world government, but by beginning to believe that “progress” (in this case, among a distant and “underdeveloped” population) is also in the rightly conceived interests of the patria. They come to see themselves as “guardians,” surrendering to the urge of “doing something.” Very often, struggles in the PMC—as in subsequent international bodies—focused on procedural victories and losses that, though passionately felt at the time, appear almost meaningless when examined later. This is not to belittle the significance of those struggles for the participants, only to underscore inflated diplomatic rhetoric such as “sacred trust.”

One issue of endless procedural wrangling on the commission had to do with the manner of hearing out the locals (or “stakeholders,” in today’s jargon). It was the subject of two of the 1950s cases at the World Court concerning South-West Africa. The League Covenant remained silent about the matter. The suggestion that the PMC might be entitled to conduct on-the-spot surveys was rejected by the mandatory powers, so the alternative was to allow written communications to the PMC. Thanks to the advocacy of William Rappard, the director of the League Secretariat’s mandates section, assisted by humanitarian activists against the outraged objections of the French and other administrators, it was decided that there would be a right to petition the PMC. Communications were, however, to be sent to the mandatory power—a paradox, since most of the petitions concerned complaints about the latter’s actions.

The limits of petitioning were strict: The mandate system itself, including the assumption that the locals were incapable of ruling themselves, could not be challenged. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the complaints often didn’t reach Geneva. Equally unsurprising, by far the greatest number—84 percent—came from the mandates of Mesopotamia, Syria/Lebanon, and Palestine. The treatment of the petitions was not judicial; the system was more political than legal. The PMC would not sit as a court to rule on the petitions (although Pedersen reports that about 10 percent were upheld). In this respect, the petitioning process resembles today’s mechanisms for human-rights complaints (a parallel that Pedersen does not make). The political nature of the treatment of complaints was reflected in the way the “seriousness” of petitions was assessed and in the careful attention paid to who was doing the petitioning and against which power. Petitioning provided a training ground for lobbying for local organizations and other special interests; the skills of the Zionist Organization, and especially its chairman, Chaim Weizmann, were overriding; certainly the Arab nationalists felt they could never quite match Weizmann’s influence.

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Two early cases compelled the PMC to define its mission. In the ­Bondelswart Affair of 1922, it opposed South Africa’s allocation of land in South-West Africa to white settlers and the use of locals from the Bondelswart tribe as forced labor on lands that had once been theirs. When the Bondelswarts protested, South Africa bombed their villages, drawing international attention (much of it critical) and beginning its own descent into the status of a pariah state. The Bondelswart Affair was a morally straightforward case that, Pedersen argues, allowed the commission to make a clear distinction between standard colonialism and an internationally supervised “mandate.” This was a real achievement, though the meaning of a “mandate” was the subject of endless debate. Differences among commission members also surfaced: Some regarded coercive action against native dissent as an unavoidable aspect of the work of civilization, whereas others such as Lugard insisted on the possibility of peaceful local progress. In the end, the PMC did criticize South Africa, though with little effect on the ground. But an antagonism that would last for many decades was kindled. It was not a surprise that the country’s old links with Germany were revived at the end of the 1930s, when the Nazis waged a propaganda battle to reclaim the former German colonies. No doubt, the PMC played a large role in South Africa’s isolation, though that country maintained economic contacts with many other countries even after the UN sanctions began in 1977. Fundamental change would come only through internal forces and struggles.

Issues of forced labor were constantly on the commission’s agenda, with France’s mandatory regime in Cameroon, Belgium’s in Ruanda-Urundi, and Britain’s in Tanganyika presenting difficult cases. Not surprisingly, France was among the least cooperative of the mandatory powers, rejecting outright criticisms of its actions in Africa by scholars such as Raymond Buell and Ralph Bunche (French colonial officials apparently even tried to persuade Harvard to suppress the publication of the former’s two-volume history, The Native Problem in Africa). After all, French public opinion was distrustful of the League as a whole—because, at Versailles, France had sought the permanent disarmament of Germany and “guarantees” against future aggression. Georges Clémenceau had no more sympathy for Wilsonian self-­determination than for the international supervision of France’s colonial activities; the country was unwilling to surrender the notion of itself as the center for civilizational rayonnement, or influence. It was obvious that Germany was to lose its colonies. But the notion that an international bureaucracy like the League of Nations could undertake a mission civilisatrice was, in the French view, frankly ridiculous. France’s military response to the 1925 Druze rebellion in French Syria/Lebanon demonstrated the ease with which French paternalism would degenerate into violence. Careful not to appear overly at loggerheads with France, the PMC largely accepted France’s explanations for its actions: When the French spoke of “civilization,” what possible authority did it have to disagree? In the end, France bowed to the system because it could do nothing else; but, outraged when a German member was appointed to the commission, France made sure that, unlike the British in Cameroon, the Germans would never be allowed to benefit from the open-door and free-trade provisions in its West African mandates.

The diplomats at Versailles had no clue what a “mandate” might entail, and this opened the way for the League’s first administrators, especially the hyperactive Rappard, to improvise through practice the meaning of that “sacred trust.” (The formation of ideology through administrative practice is, as Anne Orford has shown with respect to the “responsibility to protect” in the UN, a well-entrenched aspect of the work of international institutions.) Sir Frederick Lugard, the British colonial administrator and member of the PMC, was the most important ideological influence on the commission. In his book The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, which came out just at the right moment, in 1922, he suggested that mandates were to be administered for the happiness and well-being of the population on the one hand, and the mutual benefit of humankind on the other, the latter understood by the mandatory powers as code for economic development in the guardians’ interests. There are few heroes in this story, but the colonialist Lugard stands out for Pedersen as genuinely favoring a colonial policy that put indigenous interests first whenever feasible. Lugard possessed a well-developed sense of strategy and diplomatic seductiveness, but as the stakes became higher and countries tired of playacting in Geneva, his benevolent paternalism fell out of favor. When the mandate system was finally ignored by the revisionist powers, and even insiders became dubious of the workability of the “dual mandate,” all that was left in defense of colonial rule was cynicism—most obviously in the emergence of the vocabulary of “development” as a preferred technique for controlling distant resources.

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One of the great interwar legal puzzles concerned the place of “sovereignty” in the mandate system, a matter left undecided in the League Covenant. No authoritative resolution was attained, but the commission’s view on the matter was clear from its reaction to policies of South Africa, Belgium, and Britain that would have involved the annexation of territories. Wherever sovereignty lay, at least it was not with the mandatory powers: Any effort to unilaterally change the status of a territory was illegal. At a reasonably bright moment in its history, the commission was even able to enlist the League Council to criticize Belgium’s 1925 attempt to join the administration of ­Ruanda-Urundi to its colony in the Congo. At one point, the commission gained an unexpected ally in Germany, which, resentful of having lost its colonies, immediately protested if annexation appeared to be developing. The story of the mandates is not short on hypocrisy, but the German support for the right of self-determination in its former colonies is surely a serious contender for first prize.

Although the mandatory powers did not possess formal sovereignty, the fact that the PMC’s powers were limited to dialogue raised another perpetual problem of international administration: how to ensure that the commission’s views were implemented. Often they were not, and the dialogue with the mandatory power’s representative degenerated into prevarication and posing before the Geneva press. For example, one of the two female members to have sat on the commission, Norway’s Valentine Dannevig, methodically attempted to ensure that the mandatory power would organize the education of the local population. At the end of her tenure, she confessed to having doubts about whether anything had been accomplished. Out of the small sums of money spent by South Africa on education in South-West Africa, 90 percent went to the white inhabitants. And even when the capital was cooperating, the old trouble with the “man on the spot” remained. These problems were highlighted in tragicomic moments, such as when the PMC’s Italian chairman, the Marquis Theodoli, was received with his entourage in South-West Africa’s Ovamboland by the South African administrator surrounded by bare-breasted black women with beer cans on their heads, and offered cigars and European cheeses as well as an opportunity to “shoot something.”

Even Lugard’s “dual mandate” often collapsed into racist understandings of colonial difference, as was illustrated by the commission’s complete dismissal of a petition by 8,000 Samoans (out of an estimated adult male population of 8,500) for freedom from New Zealand rule. No consideration was given to the petition or the call for self-rule from the Samoans, whose well-organized tribal structure had been ignored by the mandatory power. The result was a miserable legitimation of repression. Here as elsewhere, the mandatory power’s interest was not in the preparation of the population for independence (an objective formally recognized only for the “A” mandates) but economic exploitation. The account of Belgium’s reorganization of the administration of Ruanda-Urundi on the basis of strengthening tribal structures and Hutu/Tutsi identifications is one of the sorriest chapters of this history, whose connections to the 1994 genocide are still insufficiently explored.

Conceptually interesting was Britain’s fabrication of an independent Iraq in 1932. As many have noted, the principal effect of the move was to make League supervision cease; the drafts of devolution treaties simply sought to ensure the continuation of British control over the oil-rich and strategically important territory. Iraq’s defense would remain in British hands, as would control of the Iraq Petroleum Company, the exclusive concession to explore the country’s oil reserves. Doubts about “independence” were not limited to outside observers: Even in London, the opinion was expressed that “Iraq” was a geographic designation rather than a state. For the colonists, however, this simply meant that there was little fear of traditional indigenous resistance. The consequences of these actions are still felt in the chaos that reigns in Iraq and neighboring areas.

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Pedersen does not for a moment forget that the consequences of imperial history play a lively role in today’s geopolitics. But she doesn’t press this point on her readers. The focus of the work remains on the massive amount of primary materials from the archives of the principal players. (The notes and bibliography extend to 120 pages.) The context of the debates in Geneva and the thumbnail sketches of the principal protagonists are arrestingly composed and thoroughly credible. The story of the exploits of the Australian adventurer Michael Leahy in New Guinea in the 1930s, for example, illustrates the ambivalences of an encounter between a population that had never spoken with a white person and an adventurer who slept with “revolver and torchlight by the pillow” and boasted of having shot 41 natives (though Pedersen assumes the real number to be much higher). But Leahy also had a lively sense of the dangers of badly managed encounters and, free of cultural prejudices, engaged in all kinds of commercial and other exchanges (including sex) with his interlocutors. He also produced filmed documentaries and gave public talks on the basis of his experiences. None of this took place within the formal procedures of the PMC, of course, but the commission must be credited for having decided early on to accept information from whatever sources seemed useful, often to the outrage of the mandatory power.

In this way, the nature and operation of the mandate system as a halfway house between formal empire and “internationalization” received its definite form. The parallels with modern international humanitarian governance are obvious: What would the UN’s or the Council of Europe’s human-rights system be without the very intense involvement of private humanitarian activists and institutions? Much of the new historical literature on the ideology and activities of the League of Nations—of which this book is part—­suggests that the interwar period has come to lead a second life in many of the present institutions and vocabularies of international governance. But although Pedersen doesn’t expressly dwell on continuities, the reader will inevitably do that on her behalf. Perhaps that has been her point as well. The result is a book that works beautifully not only as history, but also as a commentary on the current politics of institutional humanitarianism.

The mandate system was based on contradictory principles that could not hold once the political compromises that underlay the League of Nations collapsed. Germany and Japan didn’t play the League game for long: They left the organization in 1933, and were soon accompanied by the other revisionist power, Italy, which had its own colonial ambitions. Japan annexed the Pacific islands it was administering, and Italy commenced a bombing campaign in Ethiopia, a League member, thereby destroying the organization’s collective-security mechanism. In the 1930s, the first signs of organized anticolonialism emerged, and powerful non-European intellectuals such as Bunche and W.E.B. Du Bois challenged the very foundations of the paternalism underlying the mandate system. The pathetic efforts to placate Germany by opening negotiations on the return of its colonies demonstrate that, despite all the rhetoric and institutional innovation, little in European diplomacy had changed. The trusteeship system set up under the United Nations after the next war was never the object of celebratory démarches; at least it didn’t claim to be more than a temporary arrangement on the way to independence. By the end of the 1930s, increasing skepticism had also crept into the commission’s work. But, astonishingly, only a minority seem to have attributed the League’s all-too-obvious failure to the intrinsic impossibility of a “dual mandate” to satisfy both the colonizer and the colonized. In Pedersen’s account, Valentine Dannevig was the only person among the insiders to draw the conclusion that it might actually have been better for the “natives” not to come into contact with Europeans at all.

It would take some time before such an open multiculturalism would underlie a new consensus at the UN. This took place around 1970, when the World Court reinterpreted the “sacred trust of civilization” to fit a far better sensibility. No doubt that sensibility is as open to conflicts of understanding, bad faith, and cynicism as the “dual mandate.” To prepare to cope with multiculturalism’s paradoxes and ambivalences, however, it is hard to do better than to peruse carefully the narratives collected in this wonderful study.