The concept of trusteeship as understood in contemporary international relations is best expressed in article 73 of the United Nations Charter. By the terms of this article, member states of the United Nations recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of dependent territories “are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost” their “well-being.” According to article 73, this obligation includes ensuring the “political, economic, social, and educational advancement” of the inhabitants of dependent territories and their “just treatment” and “protection against abuses.” It also commits the administering states to develop “self-government” in the dependent territories and to take “due account of the political aspirations of the peoples.” In order to ensure the fulfillment of these goals, contemporary trusteeship seeks to provide varying measures of international supervision.
History. The concept of trusteeship involves a continuation and an expansion of the concept and system of mandates set forth in article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations and of the requirement in article 23(b) that League members “secure just treatment” for the native inhabitants in their dependent territories.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) provided another source for the contemporary concept of trusteeship. Starting in 1930, the ILO adopted a series of conventions designed to establish standards for the treatment of indigenous inhabitants in dependent territories, a movement which culminated with the recommendation in 1944, and the adoption three years later, of the comprehensive Convention on Social Policy in Non-Metropolitan Territories.
Taking a longer and less formal view, one finds that the concept has much deeper origins. Imperialist acts and policies were often, if not usually, accompanied by statements concerning obligations toward the indigenous inhabitants, although scholars have disagreed concerning the sincerity, meaning, and strength of these declarations and their precise relationship to modern trusteeship. Nevertheless, as early as 1885, with the signature at the Berlin conference of the general act concerning the Congo basin, some obligations toward the inhabitants of dependent territories were stated in legal form, and five years later, at the Brussels conference, international machinery was created to facilitate the implementation of these and other obligations.
Scholars have interpreted the development of the concept of trusteeship in varying ways. Some have seen it as a notable departure from past colonial policies and as a significant step in the direction of world order, while others have seen it merely as a facade for the continuation of traditional imperial practices. Still others have advanced a full range of views between these two extremes. In terms of the effects of trusteeship, the first interpretation appears to have been closest to the mark. Whatever the motives of those who wrote the concept of trusteeship into various legal documents, in operation it appears to have led to improvements in colonial regimes and to have hastened the process of decolonization. It is worthy of note that improved colonial practices appear to have resulted in intensified demands for the liquidation of colonialism.
The League of Nations Covenant prescribed extensive obligations only for the administration of dependent territories detached from the vanquished states in World War i, i.e., the mandates. A rather modest goal was set for all other areas. The concept of trusteeship as included in the United Nations Charter applied to all dependent territories. However, although the obligations and goals of trusteeship were universally applicable, the charter envisaged widely different degrees of international supervision. It divided dependent territories into two categories: trust territories and non-self-governing territories. For the former, chapters XII and XIII of the charter created an elaborate system of supervision, consisting primarily of the Trusteeship Council, which is composed of an equal number of administering and nonadministering states, including the five permanent members of the Security Council. For the other category, non-self-governing territories, member states were merely required to transmit to the secretary-general of the United Nations statistical and other information relating to economic, social, and educational conditions in the territories (Chapter XI). It is significant, though, that the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee, where matters relating to both systems are considered, was named simply the Trusteeship Committee.
Which regimen applied to any given dependent territory depended upon the administering state, since the decision to place a territory within the trusteeship system was a voluntary one. In theory, all dependent territories were eligible for the trusteeship system, although article 77 of the charter singled out former mandates and territories belonging to the defeated states of World War n as being pre-eminently eligible. Actually, only dependent territories falling into these two categories have been placed within the trusteeship system. In 1947 the General Assembly failed to adopt a resolution proposed by India expressing the hope that administering states would propose trusteeship agreements for other dependent territories. Thus, under both the League of Nations and the United Nations, the most extensive commitments have applied only to dependent territories detached from states defeated in the two world wars. On the other hand, the supervisory and enforcement machinery of the International Labour Organisation has applied equally, regardless of the status of the territory before the League or the UN, if the administering state has ratified the relevant conventions.
Eleven territories were eventually placed within the trusteeship system. One of these, the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, under United States administration, was designated as a strategic area under the special provisions outlined in articles 82 and 83, which had been inserted in the charter to accommodate American wishes. (The United States may restrict access to the territory, and it need not extend the economic privileges it exercises there to other states.) Ultimate supervisory authority with respect to this territory rests with the Security Council rather than the General Assembly, which has this authority in all other cases. This authority is relevant and exercised particularly at the time of the approval and the termination of the trusteeship agreement. The Security Council, however, transferred routine supervisory functions with respect to the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands to the Trusteeship Council. The UN’s supervision of all eleven territories has been quite similar.
The trusteeship system thus included only a small fraction of the territories and peoples under colonial rule at the conclusion of World War n. However, the system appears to have had a broader impact than its limited application would indicate. Seven of the trust territories were grouped, for administrative purposes, with non-self-governing territories. Consequently, the UN has often considered issues affecting the latter as well. More importantly, developments in the trust territories inevitably have had an impact in other dependent areas.
The system in action. Over the years an elaborate system has been developed, one which has allowed much more extensive contacts than were possible under the League of Nations’ mandates system. The administering authorities are required to submit annual reports on the administration of the territories. These reports are based on a questionnaire prepared by the Trusteeship Council, with special questions prepared for certain individual territories. When the Trusteeship Council considers a report, a special representative of the administering authority, often the highest-ranking administrative official in the trust territory, attends the sessions for the purpose of making statements and answering questions. In addition, written and oral petitions concerning the trust territories can be submitted to the United Nations, and the United Nations can dispatch special and periodic visiting missions to the trust territories. Through these several devices, the United Nations has maintained close contact with the inhabitants of the trust territories and with the individuals responsible for their administration. This close contact has greatly contributed to the trusteeship system’s effectiveness.
As applied to Somaliland, the trusteeship system had certain additional special features. This was a consequence of the General Assembly’s role in bringing the territory into the system and of the fact that Italy, the defeated administrator of the territory, was allowed to resume administrative responsibilities. Italy agreed to be aided and advised in the administration of the territory by an advisory council composed of representatives of Colombia, Egypt, and the Philippines. The most important special feature was that the trusteeship agreement was limited to a ten-year period after its approval by the General Assembly on December 2, 1950. At the expiration of this period Somali-land had to be given independence. In no other case would the administering authorities allow a final target date for independence to be established.
At the time that the United Nations Charter was drafted, it was generally expected that all League of Nations mandates would be placed within the trusteeship system, other than Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, and Palestine, which had already gained, or were about to gain, independence. The exception was South-West Africa, a mandate of the Union of South Africa. The General Assembly sought, through a series of resolutions, to induce the Union of South Africa to place South-West Africa within the trusteeship system. After the futility of these efforts became apparent, and on the basis of an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice issued in 1950, the General Assembly, starting in 1953, has established a series of committees in an attempt to exercise a measure of international supervision over the administration of the territory. Since the Union of South Africa’s willingness to cooperate with these bodies has been severely circumscribed, their effectiveness has been extremely limited. General Assembly resolutions sharply critical of aspects of the administration of the territory, especially of the application of the Union’s apartheid policy, have had little effect.
Starting with the first session, there has been pressure in the General Assembly to create machinery so that non-self-governing territories would be subject to almost the same measure of international supervision as trust territories. This pressure would have existed in any case, given the anticolonial bias of the General Assembly, but it probably gained strength because of the limited application of the trusteeship system. Article 73(e), which required administering states to submit statistical and other information relating to economic, social, and educational conditions in their non-self-governing territories, has provided a basis for action by the General Assembly. The initial step was the creation of a committee, composed of an equal number of administering and nonadministering states, to examine and consider this information.
The Committee on Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories sought to imitate the Trusteeship Council. It prepared a standard form, which resembled the Council’s questionnaire, for administering states to follow in submitting information. Its recommendations have paralleled those of the Trusteeship Council. Attempts were made to give the committee the right to receive petitions and dispatch visiting missions, but these efforts were unsuccessful. Some administering states did, however, respond to the urgings of the General Assembly and include in their delegations to the committee representatives of the indigenous inhabitants of their non-self-governing territories and specialists on various aspects of administration. Although article 73(e) does not require the submission of information on constitutional and political developments in the non-self-governing territories, the General Assembly always encourages the administering states to supply such material, and since 1962 all states do so.
Beyond creating the Committee on Information, the General Assembly assumed the power of ruling on whether or not administering states should transmit or could cease transmitting information on specific territories. Portugal alone has defied the General Assembly and refused to submit information, insisting that its overseas territories are not colonies, but integral parts of the state. When dependent territories were given independence or were fully integrated on equal terms into independent states, the General Assembly raised no objection to the administering state’s ceasing to transmit information. Cases which did not involve either of these solutions were controversial.
The aims of the General Assembly with respect to both trust territories and non-self-governing territories have been similar. They have included improving colonial practices in various ways, eliminating all racial discrimination, and, above all, liquidating colonialism. In this sense the United Nations has differed from the League of Nations, for the concept of trusteeship as applied in the League focused principally on the first and to a much lesser extent on the second and third of these goals. The activities of other international organizations in this field have generally followed the League pattern, although in July 1944 the International Labour Organisation proclaimed that it had “embarked on a process of ‘decolonization’” (1944b, p. 27).
The Trusteeship Council and the Committee on Information have broadly shared the General Assembly’s understanding of trusteeship. However, since the administering powers have been in a considerably stronger position in these two bodies, they have taken a somewhat more sanguine view of the adequacy of existing colonial practices and have made considerably more modest demands with respect to the pace of decolonization. In addition, these two bodies have been more seriously concerned about the nature of the political system of the emerging states than the General Assembly, which has been content to advocate the principles of the plebiscite and universal suffrage.
Thus the UN’s handling of its trusteeship functions had been characterized by tension between the organs principally concerned. From the first session, those with anticolonial views have had numerical superiority in the General Assembly, and as the UN’s membership has grown, so has the relative voting strength of this group. However, since the effectiveness of the UN’s activities has depended on the voluntary compliance of the administering states, there have always been distinct limits as to how far this voting strength could be pressed. In specific terms, although the anticolonial group could vote actions which might alienate minor colonial powers, such as Belgium and Portugal, they could not afford to alienate the major administering states, in particular the United Kingdom.
Starting in 1960, the tone and tempo of the United Nations proceedings with respect to its trusteeship functions has changed sharply. The increasingly rapid liquidation of colonialism in Africa, marked that year by the granting of independence to the French African territories and the former Belgian Congo, signified the acceptance by the administering states of a rate of decolonization which they hitherto had resisted. Upon entering the United Nations, as seventeen did that year, the emerging states swelled the anticolonial majority. As more and more trust territories attained the ultimate goals of the system, the importance of the Trusteeship Council faded. The first major sign of the change was the passage of General Assembly Resolution 1514 (xv), which requested administering states to take “immediate steps” to transfer “all powers” to the peoples of trust and non-self-governing territories. In 1961 a special committee was created to examine and to make recommendations and suggestions concerning the implementation of this resolution. States holding anticolonial views were given a predominant position on the committee, which was given powers almost equivalent to those of the Trusteeship Council. In 1964 this committee assumed the functions of the Committee on Information, which was disbanded. Since 1960, the General Assembly has taken the view that the period of trusteeship is nearly over, and that colonialism should be liquidated as rapidly as possible.
Evaluation. Assessments of the application of the concept of trusteeship are technically difficult and also raise various value-laden issues. Depending on their view of colonialism and their image of what attributes emerging states should have, scholars and statesmen have interpreted the record in widely different terms. Both the legality and the efficacy of the way in which the concept of trusteeship has been applied to non-self-governing territories have been hotly debated. Although the debate has been more moderate, the record of the trusteeship system in trust territories has also been controversial.
Some have argued that the United Nations has done too much, while others have maintained that it has done too little. Similarly, some have felt that the administering states have more than fulfilled their obligations with respect to both the indigenous inhabitants of dependent territories and the international community, while others have thought that they have been laggard.
Of course the debate has had other dimensions as well. Belgium, for example, has complained that the provisions of Chapter XI of the United Nations Charter have been applied only to dependent territories which are geographically separated from the administering state and has stated that they should also have been applied to dependent territories within states. The Trusteeship Council has been criticized because of the “political” nature of its proceedings and contrasted unfavorably with the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League, where a more “technical” atmosphere prevailed. This characteristic has been attributed to the fact that the Trusteeship Council is composed of representatives of states, while the Permanent Mandates Commission was composed of individuals appointed in their own capacity. The United Nations has been disparaged because it merely “ventilates” existing colonial practices, rather than suggests constructive alternatives, and shows little concern for the political structure of emerging states.
The lack of objective standards by which to measure achievements and the failure to construct such criteria or even to measure progress in dependent territories against that in independent territories has often been decried; but little academic work has been done in this area. Most scholarship has concentrated on the historical description of the activities of the League of Nations and the United Nations and on the legal and formal aspects of the concept of trusteeship. Prominent among the explanations for this is the fact that formal and legal analyses are technically easier. They can be based principally on documentary sources, and they avoid difficult problems of establishing and delimiting interrelationships.
The most that can be said, at present, concerning the effects of trusteeship is that it has altered the climate of opinion in the dependent territories, the administering states, and other countries. Although some steps have been made in the direction of determining more precisely through what means, in which directions, and with what effects the climate of opinion has been altered, this too remains an important task for future scholarship.
Harold K. Jacobson
[See also International Organization; International politics. Other relevant material may be found in Colonialism; Imperialism; Nation.]
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