UN Trusteeship Council Could Finally Find a Role in Postwar Iraq


By Paul Kennedy

Daily Yomiuri
May 9, 2003

The international community is already at odds over how the conquered Mesopotamian state of Iraq is to be governed. The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Russia, having opposed U.N. Security Council-sanctioned action against Iraq in the first place, are now rather fatuously suggesting that the international community--presumably, the Security Council--swiftly assume the lead role in administering that country. From Washington comes the news that the Pentagon has named a retired American general as governor and is creating a postconflict organization, with some eerie echoes of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's rule over Japan. And the indefatigable British Prime Minister Tony Blair--aided by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan--is once again seeking to mend the transatlantic rifts and reach an international consensus on the future of Iraq.

I have called the Franco-German-Russian press statement fatuous, and so it is. It fails to recognize that since it is U.S., and to a lesser extent British, forces that are in control of Iraq, then these two countries have a special place--and a very special responsibility--in administering its shattered society. By threatening to veto any compromise resolution in the Security Council three weeks ago, Paris forfeited its chance to be a player in this matter. If it was on the sidelines during the fighting, it can hardly claim to be a major actor during the postconflict phase. Yet the argument of American hawks--that they will rebuild Iraqi society, economy and democracy from the bottom up--deserves similar skepticism. A viceroy selected from the U.S. military would be the target of every fanatic in the Middle East and an object of scorn across the world. Moreover, given the size of the task of reconstructing a society of 23 million people, America needs financial assistance in a big way. Above all, it needs the direct practical help that only international organizations--such as the World Bank, the U.N. Development Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, and nongovernmental organizations such as Medicins sans Frontiers and Oxfam--can provide. This is a job for the global community, which, alas, is now deeply split because of the American decision to go to war in the first place. If there is an immediate humanitarian emergency in Iraq in the next few weeks, no doubt food, water and other supplies could be provided from many of those organizations from bases captured by the Americans and British. But that is not a long-term or even a medium-term solution to the larger challenge of nation-building.

That being the case, it is important to ask whether any instruments exist that, either in their present form or after significant modification, could be employed to coordinate all the steps needed to bring Iraq back into the comity of nations. While pondering this vital issue I received a query from my former research assistant Chad Golder: Do you think that there might at last be a role for the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations? The Trusteeship Council is an odd bird. It is listed in the U.N. Charter as one of its so-called principal organs, alongside, for example, the Security Council and the General Assembly. It was created to supervise colonial territories that had been administered as League of Nations mandates, such as German East Africa (now Tanzania) or island groups in the central Pacific. Ironically, one of the first mandates of the League was British-administered Iraq, until it came into its own in the late- 1920s. Because of that earlier history, the Trusteeship Council suffered from two major weaknesses in the post-1945 age. First, so many colonial territories became independent, and so swiftly, that it soon had very little business. Second, to many developing nations it smacked of out-of-date imperialism and patronage. From time to time it was proposed that the council be abolished, but the United Nations' collective lethargy meant that such proposals were never acted upon.

Thus, it exists to this day, as Chapter XIII and Articles 86-91 of the U.N. Charter. The Trusteeship Council had to contain the Permanent Five veto members of the Security Council--which should keep Washington, London, Paris, Moscow and Beijing happy--plus those states involved in administering the lands in question, plus an equal number of outside states representing the world community. The council was empowered to make its own rules and to avail itself of other U.N. bodies and specialized agencies (for example, the World Bank) when appropriate. Originally, it was to report "on the political, economic, social and educational advancement of the inhabitants of each trust territory"--and the report was to go to the General Assembly, a body that has been totally sidelined by the current Iraq war, but still remains the only forum for world discussion and comity.

I should make it clear here that I do not regard the resuscitation of this somewhat archaic body as the perfect fix. A skilled international lawyer or a practiced diplomat could easily point out its weaknesses, especially its lack of power. Countries such as China and India, always sensitive to any proposal that might threaten the internal affairs of sovereign member states, could block the Trusteeship Council's revival. Veteran diplomat Charles Hill, who was advisor to former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the early to mid-1990s, recalled that there was serious discussion of using the council in response to the frightening number of "failed states" (Rwanda, Cambodia, Somalia) at that time. But the idea could not get off the ground, says Hill, because of bureaucratic infighting and political objections.

Despite that sorry tale, it is not ridiculous to raise some more general questions. To begin with, if the Trusteeship Council is now moribund and worthless, why not scrap it? On the other hand, if U.N. member states don't wish to abolish it, why not use it to assist the world organization in the tricky issue of dealing with collapsed nations? The name itself ought not to be a hindrance. I think the word "trustee" has a benign connotation--as when I act as a trustee for a friend's godchild or for a school board. But if it has colonial overtones to many developing countries, it would not be hard to change its name: the Council for Reconstruction and Development, perhaps, or the Council for States Needing Help. Its membership could be statutorily fixed--the permanent five, plus perhaps another 20 members, representing in turn the world's regions. Once a conflict was over, the Security Council could hand the war-torn country over to the new body. It certainly should not try to micro-manage the rebuilding of society and democracy; more likely, it would appoint a special administrator and staff to work with local political parties, and to coordinate the international efforts to help the nation regain its full sovereignty as soon as possible. Since reconstruction is not a matter of war and peace, there should be no veto powers exercised in the council. And by reporting to the General Assembly, it should assuage the fears that this was disguised colonial tutelage.

My chief point is that this is not just about helping Iraq. In fact, given the differences of viewpoint between Washington and Paris, this scheme may not involve Iraq at all, where the United States might well want to run things on its own terms. Yet everyone can see that at least another half-dozen countries are teetering on the brink of collapse. So far we have dealt with them on an ad hoc basis, providing too little help too late to make a difference (as in Sierra Leone, for example, and now in Afghanistan). Might it not be better to recognize that such problems are not going to go away, and therefore the world community should respond in a more systematic and structured way than is presently the case? On the other hand, if our political leaders were willing to grasp the nettle and bury their prejudices, it certainly could involve Iraq. Why not turn the current international debates on how to rebuild that country into some more positive ideas about how to help all deeply troubled states? Wouldn't non-Western countries, wary of disguised colonialism, prefer U.N. administrative structures to an Anglo-American military mandate in the Middle East? As the recent crisis in the Security Council showed, the U.N. system is increasingly viewed from some quarters--developing world critics and American hawks alike--as flawed and out-of-date. I think those criticisms are extreme. Yet if the world organization has to be reconstructed to help member states survive and prosper in the 21st century, why not begin that rebuilding process by breathing new life into the concept of structured international assistance for collapsed and war-torn societies? Whether called trusteeship or something else, this is an idea whose time may have come. Kennedy is Dilworth professor of history at Yale University and the author or editor of 15 books, including "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers."

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