Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 19: Building a Workable Peace (1946)

One important aspect of the problem of political and economic cooperation involves the relations between the advanced industrial countries and the colonial peoples. No question in international relations has caused more difficulties and disputes during the past century. The whole story of imperialism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is one which many Americans and Europeans review with regret. But the problem is still with us. How does the Charter meet the issue of colonialism?

First, the Charter lays down certain guiding principles to be observed by all members in dealing with all non-self-governing peoples. Then it sets up an international “trustee-ship” system to oversee any non-self-governing areas that may be put under its supervision.

Here again, there is a real advance over the League of Nations Covenant and the mandate system established under it. The mandate system, which was the first comprehensive international regulation of colonial administration, applied only to the former German and Turkish colonies taken over by the victors after the first World War. But any colonial power may voluntarily place any of its colonies under the Charter’s trusteeship system. All mandates and all colonies taken over from the Axis powers may be included in the new international colonial system. They will be placed under the overall supervision of the General Assembly and the Trusteeship Council for nonstrategic territories, and of the Security Council in the case of strategic areas.

The Trusteeship Council, like the Economic and Social Council, is an agency directly responsible to the General Assembly and is designed to assist it in carrying out the general principles of the trusteeship system. The Big Five and all other members of the United Nations which control trust territories will automatically be members of the Council. The General Assembly will elect to the Council, for three-year terms, enough other states to insure equal representation of states administering trust territories and of states not administering such territories. Each state will have one vote; decisions will be taken by a majority of the members “present and voting.”


What will the Trusteeship Council do?

The powers of the new Trusteeship Council are considerably stronger than those of the League of Nations Mandates Commission. In the first place, the Council must visit the nonstrategic trust territories periodically and review the acts and activities of the trustee (or colonial) power “on the spot.” Secondly, it may receive petitions directly from the peoples in the nonstrategic trust territories and examine them in consultation with the trustee power. Finally, it has authority to “take these and other actions in conformity with the terms of the trusteeship agreements.”

These broad powers equip the Council to serve as an international overseer of colonial administration. They also clearly define it as a cooperative service agency to aid the colonial powers in promoting higher economic, social, cultural, and educational standards in colonial areas. The Council may, in fact, call on the Economic and Social Council or any of its specialized agencies to assist in carrying out this objective.

The question of what territories will be brought under the trusteeship system is left by the Charter for future determination. In each case the decision will be a matter of joint agreement between the United Nations and the state holding the territory in question. The exact terms of the trust agreements will be worked out by the General Assembly with each of the colonial powers concerned.

The Security Council instead of the General Assembly will act in those colonial territories or parts of territories designated as “strategic areas”-presumably including any air bases, naval bases, and the like-that may be used as part of the international security control system.

What are the Charter’s colonial principles?

We have already seen that the Charter defines certain broad principles for promoting higher standards in colonial government. What are some of these principles?

Perhaps the most important is that all colonial powers agree “to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples concerned, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions.” Universal self-government for all peoples is thus defined as the very core and purpose of colonial policy for the future.

Although not every present colony will be placed under the trusteeship system at first, it seems likely that the standards of administration set up by the Trusteeship Council will profoundly affect the acts and policies of cell powers holding colonies. The “political aspirations” of their colonial peoples will certainly be influenced by what the latter observe going on in the trust territories.

In addition, the general principles provide for the economic, social, and educational advancement of these peoples, “with due respect for [their] culture.” The colonial powers are required to cooperate, through research and otherwise, in promoting these ends and to submit information on their administration of colonial territories, even those not under the trusteeship system.

Furthermore the trusteeship system establishes the principle of equal treatment of the nationals of all the United Nations in trust territories. The purpose of this is to end economic, social, or legal discrimination in favor of the trustee power and its own nationals.

Are these principles workable?

This brief review of the trusteeship system suggests how long a step away from old-fashioned imperialism the United Nations have taken in their dealings with the colonial peoples. The principles outlined above mark a new stage in a world-wide democratic trend toward self-government for all peoples.

Some people consider such an objective not only unattainable but undesirable. The colonial peoples are, they say, not capable of governing themselves. However, our experience in this war with many of the so-called “backward” peoples has demonstrated their capacity for learning the most modern methods of technology.

It is true, of course, that our particular forms of democracy may not always be suited to people living under very different economic and social conditions. But if the principles of the Charter are applied with intelligence and good will, the aspirations of colonial peoples for self-government should be within reach.

Another point worth noting about the trusteeship system is its effect upon the political relations of the United Nations. Just as in the case of the Economic and Social Council, the work of the Trusteeship Council in economic and social affairs should help to promote better political understanding. No doubt as the colonial areas of the world progressively advance in living standards and political autonomy, imperialist rivalries will decline. As they are opened equally to the trade and industry of all nations, cooperative political relations between colonial and non-colonial powers will grow.

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