The UN and the Colonial World: New Questions and New Directions

Giusi Russo's picture
Call for Publications
November 1, 2019
Subject Fields: 
Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies, Diplomacy and International Relations, Human Rights, Women's & Gender History / Studies, World History / Studies



Onek Adyanga and Giusi Russo, guest editors, are seeking abstract submissions; a selection of papers based on the abstracts will be considered by the Journal of Contemporary History for potential publication in a special issue on the United Nations, its agencies, and the colonial world across the spectrum of colonialism, the era of decolonization, and its legacy. 


Historians are still debating whether the UN promoted or discouraged imperialism. The guest editors contend that the UN did both – condoned and condemned colonialism – and it is important to trace the historical forces that allowed for an apparently contradictory dynamic. The UN is expressive of both nationhood and transnational organizing. It is an entity that includes its own personnel as well as official representatives of member states and NGOs. Within these multiple roles, it might be argued that the UN contested traditional imperial power in a sphere of symbolic legitimacy. Simultaneously, the UN used the typical language of the civilizing mission, made more complex then by the technocratic approach. 


The UN sanitized the colonial language, inserted tropes of human rights, sex equality, and other measurements of progress along with theories of modernization and technocracy that dominated internationalism in the postwar. The creation of the Trusteeship Council gave voice to both traditional colonizer and colonized groups. Petitions, for example, reveal a microcosm of everyday life that highlight the individual experience within the larger dimension of internationalism. Moreover, the UN inserted de facto colonies within international provisions by defining them "non-self-governing territory" which challenged the national sovereignty of colonial powers.  


The guest editors aim to explore whether the UN in itself, and more broadly internationalism, can represent an unexplored way to look at the history of empires. The United Nations has been the source of critique for its inefficiency and for having promoted a strict geopolitical order that has remained somewhat unchallenged. Historians have looked at measurements of success, signs of coherence, and the effectiveness of international legal instruments. Few accounts encourage scholars to move beyond the traditional understanding of success and failure in favor of an approach that looks at the UN as a reflection of postwar narratives of internationalism, new standards, and a new language. The guest editors are especially keen to explore the extent to, and manner by which, traditional imperial tropes and logics were changed.   





  • The encounters between the United Nations and traditional imperial powers, and the manner by which these two negotiated the contours of a new international system. 
  • The shaping influence of specialized UN agencies, such as the WHO, ILO, UNICEF, and UNESCO, and the internal alignments and conflict in matters of colonialism/decolonization and the UN. 
  • Race, gender, and sexuality as mediated by the UN. 
  • Technocracy, colonialism, and the UN. 
  • Internationalism, empires, and pan-regional organizations and the UN.
  • Human rights, local dimensions, and international standards in the colonial sphere.
  • Petitions and the microcosm of the colonial world.
  • The UN and imagining the post-colonial nation. 
  • The UN and the representations of the colonial world. 
  • Memory and the United Nations in the post-colonial world. 
  • The UN Seminars and the production and legitimation of various kinds of specialized legal, administrative, and cultural practices.
  • UN Advisory Projects, and the refiguration of older colonial languages of control into newer, and contested, forms of knowledge.


Submission Procedures 


An abstract of 500 words should be submitted by November 1st, 2019 to both guest editors, Dr. Onek Adyanga at and Dr. Giusi Russo at