The Trusteeship Council

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Unlike the other main organs of the UN, the Trusteeship Council was established for the purpose of executing a closely defined system of operations. This is the trusteeship system, which was devised to adapt the League of Nations mandate system to meet the requirements of a new era.

The 1990s witnessed the graduation of the last of the Trusteeship Territories to independence or free association status. This historic achievement represents the official end of colonization as an official political system. In only 50 years the Trusteeship Council presided over the orderly, democratic transfer of power from developed nations to their former colonies.

The Trusteeship Council voted in 1994 to convene only at the request of its president, a majority of its member states, the General Assembly or the Security Council.


In its political aspect, the history of the world could be read as the history of the creation and disintegration of successive empires, a chain of vicious cause and effect that has brought much bloodshed and wretchedness. After World War I, however, a concerted effort was made for the first time, in a limited way, to break the chain. Recognizing that colonies are a source of friction and jealousy among wealthy nations, the victorious Allies decided not to appropriate for themselves the colonies of their defeated enemies. Instead, those territories belonging to imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire that were considered unable to function as independent states were placed under international administration supervised by the League of Nations.

The founders of the League created three types of mandates for the administration of these territories by nations acting as "Mandatories of the League of Nations." Class A mandates covered territories that were considered to be ready to receive independence within a relatively short period of time. These territories were all in the Middle East: Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan, administered by the United Kingdom; and Lebanon and Syria, administered by France. Class B mandates covered territories for which the granting of independence was a distant prospect. These territories were all in Africa: the Cameroons and Togoland, each of which was divided between British and French administration; Tanganyika, under British administration; and Ruanda-Urundi, under Belgian administration. To the territories classified under Class C mandates virtually no prospect of self-government, let alone independence, was held out. These territories included South West Africa, administered by the Union of South Africa; New Guinea, administered by Australia; Western Samoa, administered by New Zealand; Nauru, administered by Australia under mandate of the British Empire; and certain Pacific islands, administered by Japan.

The terms of the mandate system implied an acknowledgment of the right of the peoples of the colonial territories belonging to states defeated in war to be granted independence if they were thought to have reached a sufficiently advanced stage of development. However, no provision was made in the League Covenant specifying that the countries designated to administer the mandated territories should take steps to prepare these peoples for eventual self-determination.


Although the Covenant of the League forbade wars of aggressionthat is, wars of conquestthe League's founding members did not see the need to underwrite this provision in a positive assertion of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. The UN Charter embodies an implicit recognition of the belief that denial of equal rights and the right of peoples to self-determination is a potential cause of war.

Thus, Article 1 of the Charter sets forth as a basic purpose of the UN "to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace" (italics added). Article 76, which sets out the main objectives of the international trusteeship system that was to replace the mandate system of the League, leaves no doubt of the value attached to its role as a means of helping the UN, in the words of the Preamble to the Charter, "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." The article reads as follows:

"The basic objectives of the trusteeship system, in accordance with the Purposes of the United Nations laid down in Article 1 of the present Charter, shall be:

  1. "to further international peace and security;
  2. "to promote the political, economic, social, and educational advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories, and their progressive development towards self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned, and as may be provided by the terms of each trusteeship agreement;
  3. "to encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion, and to encourage recognition of the interdependence of the peoples of the world; and
  4. "to ensure equal treatment in social, economic, and commercial matters for all Members of the United Nations and their nationals, and also equal treatment for the latter in the administration of justice."

Thus, in addition to emphasizing the importance of the trusteeship system as an instrument for peace, Article 76 defines the framework for the elaboration of obligations that the countries designated to administer the territories placed under UN trusteeship must undertake toward the peoples concerned. In essence, these obligations amount to a pledge on the part of the administering authorities to work toward the liquidation of the trusteeship system itself by preparing the peoples in trust territories for independence, or at least self-government.

The Trust Territories and Their Administering Authorities

The Charter does not specify the actual territories to be placed under UN trusteeship. Article 77 merely states that the system shall apply to three categories: (1) territories still under mandate,(2) territories "detached from enemy states as a result of the Second World War," and (3) territories voluntarily placed under the system by states responsible for their administration.

On the question of designating the administrators of trust territories, the Charter is equally nonspecific. It states simply that the individual trusteeship agreements shall designate the authority in each case, which may be "one or more states or the Organization itself." The provision that the UN itself may serve as an administering authority is a compromise solution that was adopted when it was decided at the San Francisco Conference to abandon an ambitious plan, originally proposed by China and initially supported by the United States, to make the UN directly responsible for the administration of all trust territories.

It was decided that the powers that had administered mandates on behalf of the League of Nations were to conclude agreements with the new world organization and administer the same territories that were still dependent. There was one exception. The Pacific islands, which after World War I had been given to Japan as Class C mandates, were, by a special arrangement embodied in the Charter, classified as a strategic area to be administered by the United States under a modified trusteeship.

As a result of agreements worked out by the General Assembly, 11 trust territories were placed under UN trusteeship, and seven countries were designated as administering authorities. These figures exclude the former German colony of South West Africa, which after World War I had been mandated to the Union of South Africa, because South Africa refused to place the territory under UN trusteeship. The distribution of the territories and their respective administering authorities was as follows:

in East Africa : Ruanda-Urundi administered by Belgium, Somaliland by Italy, and Tanganyika by the United Kingdom;

in West Africa : Cameroons administered by the United Kingdom, Cameroons by France, Togoland by the United Kingdom, and Togoland by France;

in the Pacific : Nauru, administered by Australia and on behalf of New Zealand and the United Kingdom, New Guinea by Australia, Western Samoa by New Zealand, and the Pacific islands of the Marianas, Marshalls, and Carolines by the United States.

In September 1975, when New Guinea acceded to independence, the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands became the only Territory on the agenda of the Trusteeship Council.

By virtue of a Trusteeship Agreement approved by the Security Council in 1947, the Territory was placed under United States administration as a strategic area under the terms of Article 83 of the Charter. In compliance with the provisions of that Article, the Trusteeship Council reported to the Security Council on all matters concerning the Territory, which was comprised of four entities (Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau).

Negotiations on the future political status of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands began in 1969. In 1975, the Northern Mariana Islands, in a referendum observed by the Trusteeship Council, chose to become a Commonwealth of the United States. In a series of referendums held in 1983 and duly observed by the Trusteeship Council's Visiting Missions, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands opted for a status of Free Association with the United States, while in Palau, the 75% majority required under its Constitution for the approval of the compact of Free Association with the United States could not be obtained in that and six later referendums.

In 1986, the Trusteeship Council, noting that the "peoples of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and Palau have established constitutions and democratic political institutions providing the instruments of self governments," recommended an early termination of the Trusteeship Agreement.

In December 1990, the Security Council considered the status of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and adopted, by 14 votes to 1, resolution 683 (1990). By that resolution, the Council determined the objectives of the Trusteeship Agreement had been fully attained with respect to those three entities and that therefore the applicability of the Trusteeship Agreement to them had been terminated. Palau, therefore, remained the only entity under the 1947 Trusteeship Agreement. The Trusteeship Council at its annual regular sessions continued to review the situation in Palau.

In November, 1993, the Pacific island of Palau, the last of the islands remaining under the Trusteeship Agreement, succeeded in passing a referendum for the approval of the compact of Free Association with the United States. In January 1994, the Council requested the United States and Palau to agree on a date on or about 1 October 1994 for the full entry into force of the Compact of Free Association, and expressed the hope that, in the near future, the Trusteeship Agreement would be terminated by the Security Council (see chapter on Independence of Colonial Peoples).


The fact that the Trusteeship Council was made a main organ of the UN is evidence of the importance attached to the role of the trusteeship system. The Council's functions, however, are decidedly more limited than those of the other main organs, for it acts, as the case may be, under the direct responsibility of the General Assembly in respect to trusteeships not involving areas designated as strategic or of the Security Council in respect to trusteeships relating to areas designated as strategic. The Charter provisions make it clear that the Trusteeship Council only "assists" the General Assembly and the Security Council in implementing the trusteeship system. It had a purely executive capacity in supervising the day-to-day operations of the system.


The Charter provides that the Council is to be composed of three groups of members: the countries administering trust territories, permanent members of the Security Council that do not administer trust territories, and a number of other UN members elected for three-year terms by the General Assembly to ensure an equal division between administering and nonadministering countries in the Council.

Until 1960, the Council consisted of 14 members: 7 administering members; 2 permanent nonadministering members; and 5 other nonadministering countries elected for three-year terms by the Assembly. As the various trust territories gained independence, the size and composition of the Council changed. The Assembly decided that after 1968, the Council would be composed only of administering powers and the nonadministering permanent members of the Security Council. On 16 September 1975, when Papua New Guinea, which includes the former trust territory of New Guinea, achieved independence, Australia ceased to be a member of the Council. This change left a membership of five: one administering power, the United States, and four nonadministering permanent members of the Security CouncilChina, France, the USSR (today, the Russian Federation), and the United Kingdom.


Each member of the Trusteeship Council has one vote. Decisions are made by a simple majority vote. The permanent members of the Security Council have no veto or other special voting privileges. Before 1968, the Council held two regular sessions a year, and afterwards, one. Special sessions may be called on the decision of the majority of the members or at the request of the Security Council or the General Assembly. The president and vice-president are elected at the beginning of each regular session and serve for one year.


In carrying out its supervisory and administrative functions, the Council was specifically authorized under the Charter to consider reports submitted by the administering authority; to accept petitions and examine thin consultation with the administering authority; to provide for periodic visits to the trust territories at times agreeable to the respective administering authorities; and to formulate a questionnaire on the political, economic, social, and educational progress in each trust territory, which the administering authorities were required to answer.


Trusteeship and Strategic Area Agreements

Since trusteeship territories were merely entrusted to the administering authorities, the precise terms of the agreement had to be carefully prescribed for each territory and approved by a two thirds vote of the General Assembly, or by the Security Council in the case of a strategic area.

Article 82 of the Charter provided that there may be designated in any trusteeship agreement a strategic area or areas, which may include part or all of the trust territory concerned. In such cases, all trusteeship functions of the UN were to be exercised by the Security Council.

In fact, there exists only one strategic area agreementthat concluded between the UN and the US government on the Pacific islands mandated to Japan after World War I. Most of the general provisions of the other trusteeship agreements are included in it, but the right of accessibility to the area is curtailed, and supervision by the UN is made dependent on US security requirements. The United States is also authorized to close certain areas for security reasons.

The Role of the Administering Authorities

Administering countries were given full legislative, administrative, and judicial powers over the territories entrusted to them. If they so desired, they could administer the trust territory in conjunction with one of their own colonies. Thus, the trust territory of Ruanda-Urundi was united administratively with the Belgian Congo, and Australia established an administrative union between the trust territory of New Guinea and its own dependency, Papua. However, UN trusteeship territories were never considered to be under the sovereignty of the administering authorities, which governed them only on behalf of the UN.

The Work of the Trusteeship Council

In essence, the work of the Council consists in the exercise of the powers specifically granted to it by the Charter for the purpose of supervising the operation of the trusteeship system and ensuring that the administering authority is carrying out its obligations as laid down by the trusteeship agreement.

The work of the Trusteeship Council has diminished progressively as, one by one, the 11 trust territories either achieved independence or, on being granted self-determination, chose to unite with another independent state.

In November 1993, Palau, the last remaining Trusteeship Territory succeeded in passing a referendum approving a Compact of Free Association with the United States. In January, 1994, at its sixty-first session, the Council requested the United States, in consultation with the Government of Palau, the last remaining Trusteeship Territory, to agree on a date on or about October 1, 1994 for the full entry into force of the Compact of Free Association.

The council considered that the United States had satisfactorily discharged its obligations under the terms of the Trusteeship Agreement and that it was appropriate for that Agreement to be terminated with effect from the date referred to above, as agreed upon by the two Governments.

At that session the Trusteeship Council also amended its rules of procedure 1 and 2, which were replaced by the following:

"The Trusteeship Council shall meet as and where occasion may require, by decision of the Trusteeship Council, or by decision of its president, or at the request of a majority of its members, or at the request of the General Assembly, or at the request of the Security Council acting in pursuance of the relevant provisions of the Charter."

The Trusteeship Council suspended operation on 1 November 1994 after Palau became independent. The Council amended its rules of procedure to drop the obligation to meet annually and agreed to meet as occasion requiredby its decision or the decision of its president, or at the request of a majority of its members or the General Assembly or the Security Council. As of 2006, the Council remained suspended but there had been no decision by the General Assembly to dissolve it.

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The Trusteeship Council

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