The Future of the UN Trusteeship Council

Is a body designed to shepherd former colonies to independence still useful in an era of sovereign nation states? Possibly.

Since the United Nations Trusteeship Council fulfilled its original mandate of shepherding territories on their way to independence, debate has been raging about what to do with the institute. In 2005, Secretary General Kofi Annan recommended amending the Charter of the United Nations for the purposes of deleting those chapters and provisions related to the council but there may be a future for it still.

In an article she wrote for the Columbia Law Review in 2005 while a postgraduate student, Saira Mohamed, now a professor of international law at the University of California at Berkeley, advocated against legislating the council out of existence. In “From Keeping Peace to Building Peace,” Mohamed recommended revising the text of the Charter of the United Nations to modify the purpose and mission of the Trusteeship Council to transform it into a body that assists failing and failed states in sustainable and enduring redevelopment of governmental institutions and structures.

The development of a council tasked with fostering and encouraging uniform standards of governance must take into account the geography, the socioeconomic and sociopolitical conditions present on the ground. Nonetheless, “failed” states as Afghanistan, Chad, Somalia and Sudan could benefit greatly from the advice and assistance of such a council as would countries in the process of failing like Burma, Laos, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The Trusteeship Council was devised for a similar purpose. Tasked with creating a new international system for the postwar era, as early as during the Second World War, diplomats were faced with the question of what to do with those areas operating under the League of Nations mandatory system and the colonies and protectorates of the Axis powers.

The League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, assumed responsibility for those colonial possessions that the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Empires ceded to the allies after the First World War. The organization classified these territories into three classes and established a scheme of governance to administer them. In practice, the Mandatory Commission of the League of Nations divided the mandates into three classes A, B and C.

Class A mandates were deemed to possess sufficient strength and stability to warrant recognition as provisionally independent and as such, the mandatory power administered the mandate indirectly, utilizing the local law.

Class B mandates possessed the potential to achieve independence eventually but their successful transition from colony to sovereign nation state would demand a greater degree of involvement in the affairs of the mandate, including direct administration by the mandatory power.

The Allied powers viewed Class C mandates as having the least potential as viable states and as a result, the mandatory power virtually incorporated the Class C mandates and governed them as overseas departments of the mandatory powers.

At the time of the surrender of the Japanese government and armed forces to the allies of the United Nations in September 1945, thirteen territories remained under mandate — one Class A mandate and twelve other Class B and Class C mandates. The United Nations divested Italy of its colonies of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Libya. The mandates previously administered by the Japanese Empire were reassigned to the United Nations.

A year after the end of the war, the one remaining Class A mandate achieved partial independence when King Abdullah I announced the formal the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in May 1946. Two years later on May 14, 1948 the majority of the remaining territory within the Palestine mandate became the state of Israel.

During those years, responsibility for eleven of the twelve remaining Class B and Class C mandates transferred from the Mandate Commission to the Trusteeship Council upon ratification of the trusteeship agreements.

On October 1, 1994 the final trust territory, Palau, achieved full de jure independence. One month after gaining full independence and six weeks before Palau entered the United Nations, the Trusteeship Council amended its rules of procedure and suspended operations indefinitely. Palau gained admission into the United Nations and ever since, the council has existed on paper only.

The community of nations stands at a crossroads stretched out before them in two paths. One condemns the citizens of those states with failed and failing governments to a continued existence in which they are beset by a multitude of evils including unending strife and instability. Conversely, the other path possesses the potential to inspire stability and development by endowing the people of these nations with the tools and techniques necessary to engender change. Which path will be chosen?