Martin Thomas

Martin completed his D.Phil at University of Oxford in 1991. He taught at the University of the West of England, Bristol for eleven years before joining the Exeter History Department in 2003.

His research interests focus on the following broad themes: French colonialism and European decolonization; forms of anti-colonial protest in North Africa; colonial security service, policing, and the nature of state violence; ‘Dirty wars’ and counter-insurgency, particularly human rights abuses in asymmetric conflicts; and French international politics since World War I.

Martin’s ISRF project aims to explore the depth of connection between empire, ideas of good governance, and post-imperial interventionism. In three ways the issue of violence is central to the research:

  1. By exploring how ideas of legitimate state repression were recast during decolonization;
  2. Tracing the tensions between imperial sovereignty and forms of anti-colonial expression, the project considers changing conceptualizations of community rights;
  3. By connecting the first two points to current European responses to civil breakdown and political violence in former dependencies.


Where does the colonial past intersect with the deployment of European military forces and relief missions in the global South? Is the use of ‘soft power’ to underwrite democratic governance in former colonial dependencies imperialistic? These questions raise unsettling possibilities because the presumption that humanitarian interventionism, whether involving security forces or non-governmental agencies, is driven by compassion and urgent need is belied by its specific geographies. Inter-governmental humanitarian policy priorities, even transnational lobbying for peacekeeping deployments, operate within webs of post-colonial connection; nowhere more so than between Western Europe and Africa. Even the conceptualization of humanitarianism, and associated ideas of relief and rehabilitation, are grounded in European experiences of occupation, population displacement, and peace planning. Numerous humanitarian agencies also began their operations inside empires, often in uncomfortable dialogue with imperial governments. These experiences point to the depth of connection between empire, ideas of good governance, and post-imperial interventionism. It is these connections that this project explores.

Imperialist Humanitarianism brings together historical research on European decolonization with social scientific scholarship on peace theory, post-colonial development and European military, economic and cultural connections in former colonial dependencies in Africa and Asia. In three ways the issue of violence is central to the research:

  1. By exploring how ideas of legitimate state repression were recast during decolonization;
  2. Tracing the tensions between imperial sovereignty and forms of anti-colonial expression, the project considers changing conceptualizations of community rights;
  3. By connecting the first two points to current European responses to civil breakdown and political violence in former dependencies.

The Research Idea

Do empires somehow persist through rich world interventions in developing world crisis zones? The chosen sites, the motivations, and the practices of contemporary European military interventions in Africa and Western Asia are intimately connected to the imperial pasts of Europe’s former colonial powers. In particular, understandings of political violence and state legitimacy are embedded in decolonization experiences. British interventions in Sierra Leone (in 2000) and in Afghanistan (since 2001), much like recent French deployments in Ivory Coast, Mali and the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), exemplify these connections in practice. Yet, despite the normative assumption that post-colonial pré-carrés (or zones of influence) owe their existence to the colonial past, scholars of post-colonial interventionism rarely engage with the contested history of decolonization. Instead, the humanitarian imperatives and challenges to sovereignty inherent in peacekeeping deployments are typically explained in relation to changing United Nations doctrine. The innovation promised by this project is to bring these two literatures, and their different methodologies, into dialogue.

The levels of contestation during the final years of imperial rule, the forms of violence involved, and the extent of eventual European political, commercial and military withdrawal affect the scale and scope of humanitarian interventionism. Indeed, humanitarian action is conditioned by problems originating in the late colonial past such as territorial partition or population displacements. So the idea informing its research is that the local dynamics of European decolonization shape the responses of former colonial powers to symptoms of social breakdown and regional destabilization in present-day Africa and Asia.

The Focus

What should we make of France’s back-to-back interventions in Mali and the C.A.R.? Why does Germany play a leading role alongside Britain in police training in Afghanistan? What are the political connections and cultural reflexes informing contemporary Portuguese policy in Angola and Mozambique? How strong are Belgium’s economic interests in the Congolese Republic and how have they survived the stresses of decolonization, dictatorship, war and civil breakdown in black Africa’s largest former colony? Answering any of these contemporary questions about varying forms of European presence in the post-colonial world requires engagement with the costs and consequences of European decolonization.

The humanitarian concerns – persecution, ethnic cleansing, famine or threat to life – defined under the United Nations’ Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine as pretexts for foreign intervention have defined clearer determinants for international action, potentially in violation of individual state sovereignty. Even so, the modalities and regional priorities for interventions across the global South by Europe’s former colonial powers are primarily reflective of their networks of connection with former dependencies. Furthermore, the regional commitments made by European states in support of R2P mirror the geographies of lasting post-imperial relationships. Equally striking is that the bulk of peacekeeping forces are drawn from former colonial dependencies in the Indian sub-Continent, Africa and South East Asia. It is this factoring of imperial legacies into patterns of peacekeeping that merits deeper investigation, not least because humanitarian interventionism is fast becoming a normative standard for the deployment of European security forces in the global South.


There are four main research strands that this project will bring into dialogue:

  1. Comparative approaches to European decolonization and post-colonial state-building;
  2. Social scientific work on democratic peace theory;
  3. Political scientific research into civil wars and their internationalization;
  4. Inter-disciplinary research in imperial history, histories of development, and international law on the reconceptualization of human rights from the founding of the United Nations to that organization’s adoption of R2P doctrine in 2005.

Much of this work is of outstanding quality. The limitations therefore lie in the lack of comparative, inter-disciplinary engagement between them. Again, this may be expressed in four ways:

  1. The dearth of comparative, transnational analysis of European decolonization and its legacies (the bulk of work in this field confines itself to single empire investigation).
  2. The quantitative analysis approach that predominates in democratic peace theory in which empirical analysis of civil breakdown and foreign interventionism remains rare.
  3. The lack of micro-historical analysis in political science discussion of civil wars in which ontological definition predominates over historical connection.
  4. The tendency in research on human rights under international law to treat the global South in both the late colonial and post-colonial periods as a field of practice rather than an active agent of change.

Because it is inherently inter-disciplinary, the project proposal does not sit neatly within the parameters of discrete research funding calls in the Humanities or the Social Sciences. Its hybrid nature is what makes application to the ISRF appropriate.

Theory & Evidence Base

Incumbent theoretical approaches to European military interventionism and associated infrastructural support in conflict-ridden African and Asian states draw on three discrete literatures. The first is primarily an International Relations approach. Two preoccupations are evident here: the relationship between peace building and authority-projection on the one hand, and the question of whether humanitarian interventionism is a product of a liberal international community or constitutive of it.

The second approach, prevalent in political science writing on conflict resolution/peace theory and civil wars, attempts the quantitative measurement of political violence, regime overthrows, and interventionism in civil wars. The resultant correlation of civil disorder and mass killing with forms of governance can be narrowly deterministic.

Empirically researched histories of contested decolonization have addressed questions of why violence erupts, what forms it takes, and what long-term consequences it leaves. But few stray beyond a single empire analysis. Fewer still consider linkages between late colonial disorder, legacies of social instability, and patterns of contemporary European intervention in the former colonial world. Much is to be derived from all three incumbent approaches described above. More still may be gained by bringing each into dialogue with the other by combining the inductive analysis of IR with the quantitative data drawn from conflict resolution/civil wars analysis, and the archival research of decolonization history.

My background is that of a historian of empire and decolonization. My aim is to combine comparative empirical research of Western Europe’s overseas empires with investigation of insights from the social scientific literature described above.


Archival research will be conducted in relation to former colonial regions where European humanitarian interventionism has featured prominently:

  1. Algeria – former hub of France’s North African empire and site of France’s closest security ties in the Maghreb.
  2. Sierra Leone – centre of British colonial mining and site of Britain’s most recent decisive intervention in an African civil war (Operation Palliser in 2000).
  3. Former Belgian Congo/DRC in which networks of connection between mining interests in Eastern Congo (Katanga and the Kivu provinces), separatist movements and gendarmerie forces before and after independence will be explored.
  4. Lusophone Southern Africa, especially Angola, in which the transition from contested decolonization to civil war was almost immediate and in which multilateral foreign interventionism predominated before and after Portuguese withdrawal in 1975.

Alongside this African regional focus, the research will investigate the colonial roots of the practices and policy priorities evident in humanitarian interventionism more widely. This will be done by focusing on security force development and intelligence collaborations, police training and peace building.

Combining this empirical research with social scientific insights and quantitative evidence in relation to civil war violence and conflict resolution should open comparative, transnational, and inter-disciplinary perspectives on the colonial – post-colonial ties intrinsic to humanitarian interventionism. Fundamental to the success of this work will be the comparative examination of political violence and sovereign rights. Both were fundamentally reshaped by contested European decolonization. And both transformed European conceptions of political legitimacy, individual rights, and humanitarian imperatives.


Dissemination of the project findings will be assured in three ways: through publication; through a workshop network; through an online digital resource.

The project’s principal outcome will be a book on European decolonization and Imperialist Humanitarianism. It will be informed by discursive engagement with social scientific theory and empirically researched case studies. To maximize dissemination, the book will be previewed by an article surveying themes of colonial connection, political violence recast through decolonization, and the emergence of imperialist humanitarianism. The article will be targeted at internationally recognized journals such as Comparative Studies in Society and History or International Security.

A research workshop will be held at the University of Exeter in the project’s penultimate month. Hosted by the Centre for War, State and Society, of which I am Director, and mounted with Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, the workshop will bring together invited academics from imperial history, political science and development studies with diplomats and military practitioners with experience in peace planning. The workshop will test the concept of imperialist humanitarianism against real world cases of colonial practice and contemporary European intervention.

Two affiliated Exeter research centres, the Centre for War, State and Society and the Centre for Imperial and Global History will serve as platforms for an online digital record of three regional cases explored in the project. The resultant web resource will combine short write-ups of research findings with archival materials. Each will be discussed in Exeter’s Imperial & Global History blog.


The project furthers ISRF’s goals in three ways above all:

  • by pursuing a different and distinct approach to the connections between real life problems and their historical antecedents;
  • by offering insights into a new concept of ‘imperialist humanitarianism’ that helps explain the priorities and practices of peace-building in the former colonial world;
  • by extending the focus in the study of European humanitarian interventionism beyond theories of soft power and quantitative analysis to encompass empirical research into the precedents and legacies resulting from European decolonization.

Bringing these three goals together, the project aims to be more than sum of its inter-disciplinary parts. The use of insights from IR into the nature of peace-building and the constitutive elements of international community thinking helps unlock the connection between the increasing prevalence of humanitarian interventionism and the former colonial regions in which such interventions have been concentrated. Using quantitative data and case study analysis from work in political science on civil wars and conflict resolution should deepen our understanding of the extent to which forms of violence refined during the years of contested decolonization are replicated in the contemporary world.

These inter-disciplinary methods should add rigour to the central concept of imperialist humanitarianism, providing a longer and more empirical historical view through which Europe’s engagement with the global South may be understood.

A list of project-related outputs will be added here.