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The Repurposed UN Trusteeship Council for the Future: PART – I: The Context and the Idea

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

By Prof. Bharat H. Desai

In view of constraints of the SIS Blog space, this article will appear in Part – I and Part – II.

On 15 July 2022, IOS Press published an ideational proposal of this author entitled: “The Repurposed UN Trusteeship Council for the Future”, Environmental Policy and Law 52 (2022) 223-235. It also forms part of the book curated by the author on Envisioning Our Environmental Future: Stockholm+50 and Beyond (IOS Press: Amsterdam, 2022). The said ideational proposal holds significance in view of a flurry of initiatives taken by the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres. In April 2022, the UNSG formed the High-Level Advisory Board (HLAB) for Effective Multilateralism as a sequel to his 2021 report Our Common Agenda as well as the statement to the 75th session of the UN General Assembly (September 2021). It is a prelude to the UNSG’s proposals for the Special Envoy on the Future Generations and the Summit of the Future 2023.

The UNSG has suggested that the UN Trusteeship Council (UNTC) be repurposed “to enhance the governance of the global commons…invite States to consider making the Council available as a multi-stakeholder body to tackle emerging challenges and, especially, to serve as a deliberative forum to act on behalf of succeeding generations”. The suggestion of the UNSG was endorsed in another report Our Common Agenda and the Road to 2023 in order to “improve governance of the global commons, including the high seas, Antarctica, the atmosphere, and outer space”.

The UNTC Idea on the Global Radar

The UNSG’s suggestion reflects the inherent powers of his office as the chief executive officer of the 193-member political organization of the sovereign states. It also shows that change is the law of life. The time seems to have finally come for the UNTC to “arise, awake and listen to the boons” (उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत - Katha Upanishad, 1.3.14 chapter) after a hiatus of 28 years. The UNSG report has provided a fresh impetus to this author’s long standing scholarly idea (2022; 2021; 2014; 2000) for revival and repurpose of the UNTC, originally mooted in a special talk of 15 January 1999 at the World Bank in Washington DC. The relevance of the idea also came to the fore in the author’s interaction at the Expert Consultation of 22 June 2022 with members of the UN-HLAB who sought concrete ideas for the future. It took place quick on the heels of the Stockholm+50 Conference (2-3 June 2022). How can the UNTC be repurposed with a new mandate in the new context?

In the wake of this author’s one-one-one meeting with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a detailed proposal contained in the book International Environmental Governance (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2014), released at the UN General Assembly Building (UNHQ, New York; 12 December 2014), was provided both to the Prime Minister Office (PMO) as well as the External Affairs Minister. In a letter of 12 March 2019 to the author, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres termed idea of the UNTC revival as “common concern” and referred to “different initiatives related to the protection of the environment and the conservation and sustainable use of its resources”. Reflecting on the growing convergence of thoughts on the UNTC revival, in a letter dated 28 January 2019 to the author, the President of the 73rd UN General Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, shared her sentiment that “preserving and caring for our planet and protecting the environment are among the most pressing challenges we face globally”. She further added: “As you rightly point out, a new mandate for the UN Trusteeship Council would necessitate consensus among the UN membership and an amendment to the Charter in accordance with its article 108”.

Responses from some of the Heads of Government have also been promising. On behalf of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ letter of 31 July 2019 said: “We view it as a unique approach to tackle environmental challenges and we agree with you on its potential…We will surely take into consideration your proposal in our future deliberations”. Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia, in a letter of 6 September 2019, reposed trust in the UN processes and observed: “Australia strongly supports the United Nations (UN) reforms…that UN oversight processes can work effectively, and that the UNSG takes his responsibilities serisouly”. Going beyond diplomatese, Winston Peters, Deputy PM of New Zealand, on behalf of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, on 12 September 2019 specially compared the idea of ‘trusteeship’ with the local Māori tradition and said: “The value of kaitiakitanga (guardianship and conservation) resonates strongly with the New Zealand Government, and aligns with the understanding that we have been entrusted with our environment, and have a duty of care for it”.

It is in the abovementioned global context as well as following a communication from the PMO, the former SIS colleagues Ajay Patnaik (Dean) and Chintamani Mahapatra (Rector) quickly moved to specially organize this author’s SIS Public Talk (10 April 2019): “On the Revival of the UN Trusteeship Council with a New Mandate for the Environment and the Global Commons”.

In Sacred Trust

As the things stand, the UNTC still remains one of the six “principal organs” of the UN (Article 7). It has remained dormant since suspending operations on 10 November 1994 after independence of the last trust territory of Palau. On the basis of the UNTC resolution 2199 (LXI) of 25 May 1994, the UNSC adopted resolution S/RES/956 (1994) to this effect. The tasks of the UNTC were to supervise the dependent territories. The concept of sacred trust remained the cardinal principle of the UNTC for the exercise of hand-holding and care for the entrusted 11 trust territories (during 1945-1994).

As per Article 86 (Chapter XIII) of the UN Charter, the UNTC was to administer the trust territories. The TC comprised the five permenant members (Article 23) of the Security Council. As a corollary, under the authority of the UNGA, the UNTC was to “consider reports submitted by the administering authority” (Article 87) and “make an annual report to the General Assembly” (Article 88).

In view of completion of its mandated task, the UNTC amended its rules of procedure by a resolution on 25 May 1994, to drop the obligation to meet annually. It has agreed to meet as occasion required. It could be by 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 a reflection of continuity, the 73nd session (7 December 2021) of the UNTC elected Nathalie Broadhurst Estival of France as its President and James Kariuki of the United Kingdom as its Vice-President. The Trusteeship Council is expected to meet again in December 2023.

As the UN practice shows, any proposal for an amendment of the Charter is generally treated cautiously. There has been much effort to push for the expansion of the UNSC’s membership and to review the veto power itself. That has not yet materialized. It is feared that it would open up a Pandora’s box for review of the whole Charter as many member states strongly feel that the UNSC is not representative and the UN Charter does not reflect the realities of the 21st century world. Any such UN restructuring would need to be reflective of the aspirations of the ‘peoples’ in whose name the Charter came into existence on 26 June 1945. If there is a consensus on the utility of the UNTC in this new context, an appropriate mandate would need to constitute “trusteeship of the planet”.

It has also been identified that the governance of the global commons forms a significant part of the larger architecture of International Environmental Governance. In view of the global environmental challenges, it is now high time to entrust the UNTC with the overall supervision of the global commons and the global environmental protection. How can the UNTC be repurposed in with a new mandate in the new context?

Professor Dr. Bharat H. Desai is Jawaharlal Nehru Chair and Professor of International Law at the Centre for International Legal Studies of SIS, JNU. He coordinated the Making SIS Visible initiative (2008-2013) as well as Inter-University Consortium: JNU; Jammu; Kashmir; Sikkim (2012-2020) and is the Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Policy and Law (IOS Press: Amsterdam).


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