International Law and Transitional Governance

Copyright: Philippe Carbonez

Transitional governance has gained enormous traction after the Cold War and is likely to be repeated in the foreseeable future. Since 2011, transitional institutions and procedures were set up to steer regime changes in countries going through the so-called Arab Spring. Since 2012, transitional institutions were also created in sub-Saharan Africa with some commentators suggesting they spelled the arrival of an African Spring. At the time of writing, Burundi opposition leaders prepare for a legal and political transition in their country whereas parallel peace talks in Geneva and Sochi concern a possible transition in Syria. In Yemen, political actors have tried to steer a ‘transition within a transition’. Transitional governance is usually paired with efforts to ‘re-constitutionalise’ the state. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN has been closely involved in at least thirty such efforts. In several cases, so-called contact or ‘friends of’ groups, composed of several representatives of states and IOs, have been active participants in these processes. States increasingly conduct ‘constitutional geopolitics’ by trying to impact the constitutional structure of another state, even without forcible intervention, and by hand-picking their favoured oppositional transitional authority. This project unravels the role of domestic and external actors in these transitions. Rather than focusing on what precedes or succeeds, it focuses on the actors and practices of the transition itself: the journey becomes the destination. How is this journey, however, constrained under international law and its fundamental principles of non-intervention and self-determination? Bringing together practitioners with wide experience on transitional governance and respected academics in the field this project aims to share their views and knowledge about what is possible, and what not, when a state is going through its own renaissance.

Research Questions

  • What role does, and should, international law play in the transformation of states and societies after conflict? How does international law constitute and govern transitional states through domestic processes and how does it mediate between domestic and international players and practices?
  • The principle of non-interference in domestic affairs and the priority for sovereign territorial integrity have been constants in international law. How can we compare the current era, in which transformation and international intervention more often occurs through the preservation of existing states, with the prior era of decolonization and dissolution? How have historical/structural and ideational factors affected the modes in which intervention occurs?
  • What is the significance of “interim” or “transitional” in the discourse and practice of state building? How do particular ideas about time and transience intersect with international law? What marks the beginning of an “interim” period and what marks the end? How are peace agreements and treaties used to define transitional periods?
  • How do external interventions affect the political economy of “transitional” states and how does international law regulate, manage, and govern resource distribution? For example, what about land and property laws?
  • How does the principle of internal self-determination legitimate or obstruct transformations and transitions? What about rules regarding regime succession, including odious debt, or international recognition of ‘transitional councils’ or ‘transitional authorities’?
  • What is the role of regional integration approaches in transitions and transformations at the state and local levels?
  • Recent scholarship has pointed out the technocratic nature of state building, particularly its tendency toward ‘toolboxes’, management, and manuals. How does international law contribute, and become affected by, the “new technocracy”?
  • How should and can international interveners be made accountable, legally and politically, for their actions in post-conflict territories?

Research Results


International Law and Transitional Governance: Critical Perspectives (E De Groof and M Wiebusch (eds), Routledge)  

State Renaissance for Peace: Transitional Governance under International Law (E De Groof, Cambridge University Press) 


  • International Expert Seminar: “Law and Politics of State Transformation, International Intervention and Domestic Interim Governance”, European University Institute (EUI), Harvard Law School (IGLP) and University of Copenhagen, 21-22 September 2015, Florence, Italy.

  • Panel: “State Transformation and Interim Governance”, at I-CON International Society of Public Law (ICON·S) 2015 Conference “Public Law in an Uncertain World”, New York University (NYU) and European University Institute (EUI), 1-3 July 2015, New York, US.