United Nations Trusteeship Council

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The Trusteeship Council chamber, UN Headquarters, New York City.

The United Nations Trusteeship Council, one of the principal organs of the United Nations, was established to help ensure that non-self-governing territories were administered in the best interests of the inhabitants and of international peace and security. The trust territories—most of them former mandates of the League of Nations or territories taken from nations defeated at the end of World War II—have all now attained self-government or independence, either as separate nations or by joining neighboring independent countries. The last was Palau, which became a member state of the United Nations in December 1994. Subsequently, having successfully fulfilled its own mandate, the Trusteeship Council was suspended. The Trusteeship Council did not have any direct involvement in the decolonization process, although colonial powers were required to report to the Secretary-General on progress in their territories. Since the United Nations' Charter included "respect for the principle of self-determination," this was presumed to include progress towards the withdrawal of colonial rule.

Some had wanted to place oversight of progress towards independence of all non-self-governing territories under the Council but this was too radical for the great powers to accept. Controversy swirled around both the trusteeship system and decolonization. Many celebrate decolonization as fulfilling the basic human right of self-determination. Others question whether equality, justice, peace, the end of poverty, exploitation and the dependency of some on others can be achieved as long as nation-states promote and protect their own interests, interests that are not always at the expense of others, but which often are. As freedom spreads around the world, some people hope that a new world order might develop, with the nation-state receding in significance. Instead, global institutions would consider the needs of the planet and of all its inhabitants.


The Trusteeship Council was formed in 1945, to oversee the decolonization of those dependent territories that were to be placed under the international trusteeship system created by the United Nations Charter as a successor to the League of Nations mandate system. Ultimately, 11 territories were placed under trusteeship: seven in Africa and four in Oceania. Ten of the trust territories had previously been League of Nations mandates; the eleventh was Italian Somaliland. The Council was to work closely with ECOSOC.[1]

Under the Charter, the Trusteeship Council was to consist of an equal number of United Nations Member States administering trust territories and non-administering states. Thus, the Council was to consist of (1) all U.N. members administering trust territories, (2) the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and (3) as many other non-administering members as needed to equalize the number of administering and non-administering members, elected by the United Nations General Assembly for renewable three-year terms. Over time, as trust territories attained independence, the size and workload of the Trusteeship Council was reduced and ultimately came to include only the five permanent Security Council members (China, France, the Soviet Union/Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States).


The Trusteeship system was in many respects a carry over from the League of Nations. However, the League had allowed colonial powers to procrastinate "in giving up" their colonies.[2] The notion of "trusteeship" assumed that the people who were in "trust" were further down the ladder of social evolution. racist patronizing and paternalistic assumptions were behind such notions as "grooming," "trusteeship," and the "civilizing mission" of the great powers, which saw the Europeans at the top, followed by Asians with Africans at the bottom.[3] It was considered from the outset that category "C" territories might need to be ruled almost indefinitely, since they were the "most primitive."[4] Those whose governance was entrusted to others were "minor wards of the human family".[5] At the end of World War II, some of the powers thought despite their acceptance in principle that self-determination was indeed a "right" that independence was still a long way off for many of their colonies and trust territories.[6] France walked out of UN meetings when its Maghreb possessions were under discussion and engaged in anti-independence wars in such places as Algeria and Vietnam. Louis says that most historians regard the post-World war II trusteeship system as a "device to block the takeover of a colonial territory by a rival" power.[7] Portugal fought a long and expensive colonial war and Britain used force to resist independence movements in several of her possessions.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had wanted the UN to "hasten the process by which all colonies would eventually attain independence" and would like to have seen more specific reference to this in the UN Charter. He was insistent that the Atlantic Charter of August 14, 1941, which paved the way for the post-World War II world order, "contain a self-determination clause" which it did, although Winston Churchill had resisted this. This clause expressed the "right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live."[8] As an anti-imperialist, Roosevelt saw the United States as fighting for the "independence of all people of the world," as he told the Sultan of Morocco.[5] However, France as well as Great Britain resisted the inclusion of the same clause in the UN Charter. Instead, the Charter speaks of respect for the "principle of self-determination" but falls short of affirming this as a "right." The relevant Articles, 1, 55, and 56 were drafted by Ralph Bunch, whose own grandmother had been born in slavery. Like Roosevelt, he would like to have vested the UN with a stronger role in supervising decolonization.[9] Louis comments that many people had high hopes when they heard that Bunch, who went on to become the first black man to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was working on the self-determination clauses.[10] Bunch served as the Council's first Director. The Trusteeship Council was not therefore assigned direct responsibility for oversight of colonial territories outside the trusteeship system, although the Charter did establish the principle that member states were to administer such territories in conformity with the best interests of their inhabitants. Designated "non-self-governing territories," there were 72 of these when the Council was established. Some had wanted all colonies to be placed under the oversight of the Council. In 1960, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. This stated that all people have a right to self-determination and proclaimed that colonialism should be speedily and unconditionally brought to an end.[11] The requirement for colonial powers to report on progress to the Secretary-General, though, was rather vague. Despite the Charter's "respect for the principle of self-determination" the requirement was to report on "education, social, and economic conditions."[12] Indeed, says Philpott, far from being a "right" to "which non-self governing territories were entitled, 'self-determination' was a principle open to wide interpretation."[12]

The British and the French took the view that it was up to them to decide how and when their colonies would be granted independence. Both saw their colonies as symbolic of their status as world powers; France especially took the view, as George Bidot said, that "France would be her own trustee" and that the United Nations did not have the right to criticize or censure her colonial policy. According to France, "progress towards statehood" was not a "matter for international statehood."[13] The trusteeship system was nothing more than a "campaign of ignorance and calumny against the French colonial empire."[14] France stressed its civilizing mission and the unity of empire mission and the metropole and Charles de Gaulle saw trusteeship as "a facade meant to conceal the true interests of its sponsors" which was to frustrate and embarrass France. Britain thought that the UN did not truly understand colonial responsibility, and rejected "any further oversight of its colonial policy as an unlawful interference in its internal affairs."[15] France probably did have some notion in mind of a permanent union between the metropole and French territory overseas. Britain, however, never had any intention "to make its colonists British citizens" yet saw colonies as a source of "national greatness."[3] As newly independent countries became members of the UN, the United Nations General Assembly became a venue for censuring the colonial powers for failure to speed up decolonization. Britain, as did France and the U.S., used its position in the United Nations Security Council to "dilute the United Nation's bile."[16] As the process dragged on, the General Assembly went beyond "condemnation to stand for a process of 'liberation.'"[17]

The British commented that criticism in the General Assembly seemed to be led by "anti-colonial countries" with India at the helm.[15] The United States was also routinely criticized by the Soviet Union for procrastinating granting independence to its Pacific Ocean trust territories, although under a provision passed by the Security Council, which the Soviets had accepted, this qualified as "strategic trust territories." The U.S. used the veto in the Security Council to forestall "any criticism as its role as the administering authority for the Pacific islands" while the Soviets accused the U.S. of "pursuing an annexationist policy."[18] Strategic considerations had played a vital role during the great imperial age, when bases were acquired or leased in distant parts of the world for strategic reasons. For the same reasons, the colonial powers expanded their presence or influence in those areas of the world they considered to be strategically important. The initial division of trusteeship mandates after World War I was largely determined by the strategic and also economic interests of the Trustee powers. The end of the Cold War thus impacted on the end of the trusteeship system when Palau, a major U.S. nuclear base, became independent. The Cold War and the decolonization process shared the same time period and were integrally related; fears of communist regimes gaining power delayed independence in some situations. Independence movements were sometimes funded by one of the Cold War parties; newly-independent but oppressive regimes were propped up by the Western alliance if they also happened to be anti-communist.

Trusteeship: A "sacred trust"

The United Nations saw the task of promoting "the well-being" and "advancement" of people in non-self-governing territories as a "sacred trust."[19] Colonial powers would also "lift the yoke of 'alien subjugation, domination and subjugation.'"[17] Two main criticisms have been offered of the trusteeship system. First, it has been characterized as colonialism under a different name, a partnership between White settlers "keen to establish white supremacy" and conservative political interests in the metropole. Many people in trust territories were "right-less tenants and migrant" labor, deprived of their own land.[20] In this view, the trusteeship system perpetuated exploitation; why else did it take such a long time for some trustees to grant independence. In other words, if the trust territories were a large financial burden, they would probably have been set free. The second criticism is that although equipping the people of trust territories for self-determination was recognized as a "sacred trust," progress here was slow. Often, people were trained as teachers, doctors, engineers while very few were allowed an opportunity to share in governance.[21] In 1961, the Netherlands promoted a General Assembly resolution to place all remaining Trustee territories directly under international administration suggesting that this also include its West Irian possession, which Indonesia claimed until "a plebiscite might be arranged" on its future.[22]

The Last Mandates: Mission accomplished

Nonetheless, with the independence of Palau, formerly part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, in 1994, there are presently no trust territories, which leaves the Trusteeship Council without responsibilities. As the colonies also gained independence, the membership of the United Nations has grown from 50 to 192. Since the Northern Mariana Islands was a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and became a commonwealth of the U.S. in 1986, it is technically the only area to have not joined as a part of another state or gained full independence as a sovereign nation.

Present status

Its mission fulfilled, the Trusteeship Council suspended its operation on November 1, 1994, and although under the United Nations Charter it continues to exist on paper, its future role and even existence remains uncertain. The Trusteeship Council still has a President and Vice President, although the sole current duty of these officers is to meet with the heads of other UN agencies on occasion. Initially they met annually, but according to a UN press release from their session in 2004:

The Council amended its rules of procedure to drop the obligation to meet annually and agreed to meet as the occasion required. It now meets by its own decision, the decision of its President, at a request from a majority of its members, or at a request from the General Assembly or Security Council.[23]

Many consider the Trusteeship work of the UN to be a success story, arguing that while the Trusteeship Council worked itself out of a job, the UN as a whole has failed to find its role in the world, or at least to achieve much of significance. Whittaker, writing with reference to the International Court of Justice, says that "The Trusteeship Council … has worked itself out of a job while the International Court of Justice had never held one down."[24] The UN has failed to act during the perpetration of the crime of genocide despite legally binding international treaties meant to prevent this; many wars have taken place, no few involving members of the Security Council. The UN itself was divided on trusteeship and colonial issues, with the General Assembly criticizing and even condemning Permanent Security Council members, who could use their veto in the Security Council itself against criticism. In at least morally overseeing the process which more than tripled the number of nation states around the world, the Trusteeship Council rarely questioned whether the nation-state model is the best way to organize the world. During the decolonization and Trusteeship periods, states more often than not acted in their own interests; self-determination was granted or withheld according to the interests of the administrating authorities. The UN itself can only work to fulfill its mandate to end war and establish global peace and justice when nations choose to cooperate. Humanity may need to find mechanisms to limit the sovereignty of states, or to elevate the common concerns and interests of all people over and above national self-interest, if the world is to develop into a place of health and prosperity for everyone.

Future prospects

The formal elimination of the Trusteeship Council would require the revision of the UN Charter, which is why it has not been pursued. Amendment has to be passed by two-thirds of the UN General Assembly and also by two-thirds of the total UN membership. If amendment does proceed it is likely to be part of a larger reform program probably also extending or changing the membership of the Security Council.

The Commission on Global Governance's 1994 report recommends an expansion of the Trusteeship Council. Their theory is that an international regulatory body is needed to protect environmental integrity on the two-thirds of the world’s surface that is outside national jurisdictions.[25]

Some suggest that the trusteeship system may still have a function dealing with failed states, arguing that the option of reconvening the Council ought to be retained. "Few ideas" says Marks, "are absolutely new and the proposal that countries with failed, failing, and oppressive governments may require temporary assistance in governance from the international community is, in one sense, a replay of the trusteeship system."[26]

In March 2005, however, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed a sweeping reform of the United Nations, including an expansion of the Security Council. As this restructuring would involve significant changes to the UN charter, Annan referred to such possibilities that the Trusteeship Council in a new format "focus its efforts on the atmosphere, outer space, and the oceans."[27]

See also

  • UN General Assembly
  • UN Security Council
  • UN Secretariat
  • International Court of Justice


  1. Whittaker (1997), 12.
  2. Philpott (2001), 192.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Philpott (2001), 172.
  4. Philpott (2001), 157.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Philpott (2001), 179.
  6. Philpott (2001), 175.
  7. Louis (2006), 205.
  8. Philpott (2001), 180.
  9. United Nations, The United Nations Charter. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  10. Louis (2006), 586.
  11. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Philpott (2001), 158.
  13. Philpott (2001), 234.
  14. Louis (2006), 286.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Philpott (2001), 182.
  16. Philpott (2001), 181.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Whittaker (1997), 22.
  18. Philpott (2001), 43.
  19. Whittaker (1997), 8.
  20. Brown and Louis (1999), 194.
  21. Brown and Louis (1999), 195.
  22. Whittaker (1995), 196.
  23. John Kieran and Dan Golenpaul, Information Please Almanac, Atlas & Yearbook (New York, NY: Dan Golenpaul Associates, 1997), 301.
  24. Whitakker (1995), 9.
  25. John Shaw, UN Adviser Says World Must Focus On Sustainable Development, The Washington Diplomat. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  26. Edwards Marks, Transitional Government: A Return to the Trusteeship System? American Diplomacy. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  27. PBS, Who Does What, Eye of the Storm. Retrieved December 22, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baehr, P.R., and Leon Gordenker. 2005. The United Nations: Reality and Ideal. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403949042.
  • Brown, Judith M., and William Roger Louis. 1999. The Twentieth Century. The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 4. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198205647.
  • Louis, William Roger. 2006. Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonization: Collected Essays. London, UK: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 9781845113094.
  • Mohamed, S. 2005. From Keeping Peace to Building Peace: A Proposal for a Revitalized United Nations Trusteeship Council. Columbia Law Review. 105(3): 809-840.
  • Philpott, Daniel. 2001. Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations. Princeton Studies in International History and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691057460.
  • Sears, Mason. 1980. Years of High Purpose: From Trusteeship to Nationhood. Washington, DC: University Press of America. ISBN 9780819110534.
  • Smith, Roy H. 1997. The Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement: After Moruroa. London, UK: Tauris Academic Studies. ISBN 9781860641015.
  • Talbott, Strobe. 2008. The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780743294089.
  • Taylor, Paul Graham, and A.J.R. Groom. 2000. The United Nations at the Millennium: The Principal Organs. London, UK: Continuum. ISBN 9780826447784.
  • United Nations. 1995. Rules of Procedure of the Trusteeship Council (as Amended up to and During its Sixty-First session). New York, NY: United Nations. ISBN 9789211005936.
  • Whittaker, David J. 1995. United Nations in Action. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 9781563247422.
  • Whittaker, David J. 1997. United Nations in the Contemporary World. The Making of the Contemporary World. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780415153171.

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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