The charter does not assign any particular task to the UN with respect to non-self-governing territories. It does not even specify what should be done with the information transmitted to the Secretary-General. Hence, the General Assembly has considered itself free to define its own functions.
Since, even in the very beginning, the majority of UN members were vehemently anticolonial, the immediate task that the General Assembly set for itself was to induce the colonial countries by every means in its power to fulfill their obligations under the charter declaration. Judging from the disputes and controversies that arose even as early as 1946, it seems safe to assume that this development was totally unforeseen by the colonial countries at the time of the San Francisco Conference.
Although the General Assembly lacks the power to enforce its recommendations, the colonial powers had no wish to see themselves recorded as being in constant opposition in majority decisions. Consequently, they fought from the start to maintain the right to take the initiative in affairs concerning their own territories and to prevent the UN from expanding its role in colonial matters. However, they were fighting a losing battle against an irreversible trend of world opinion; in effect, the story of the UN's role has essentially been one of increasing involvement in the process of decolonization.
The first dispute that arose between the colonial powers and the other UN members concerned the General Assembly's desire to discuss the reports that had been submitted on the various territories. Some of the colonial governments, particularly Belgium, contended that the mere submission of reports fulfilled the charter's requirements under paragraph (e) of Article 73. Disregarding these protests, the 1947 General Assembly set up a special committee to report on the information received. In 1949, this committee was established as the Committee on Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories, composed of an equal number of administering and nonadministering countries. In the same year, the General Assembly adopted a standard questionnaire, which the administering powers were expected to answer in annual reports. The questionnaire covered virtually every aspect of the social, economic, and educational conditions in the territories. However, because of the controversies discussed below, the committee received reports on only 56 of the 74 territories.
By 1949, some of the administering powers had unilaterally interpreted paragraph (e) of Article 73 to mean that when they themselves considered a territory to have attained self-government, they no longer needed to submit reports on it to the UN. On this basis, the United Kingdom ceased sending information on Malta after its first report in 1946. Likewise, France, after 1946, stopped sending reports on certain of its territories, including Guadeloupe, Martinique, and New Caledonia, that it regarded as overseas departments with rights equal to those of the metropolitan departments of France or as having reached a requisite stage of "internal autonomy." Nor did the United States send reports on the Panama Canal Zone after 1946 (though this decision may have been made because Panama itself contested classification of the Canal Zone as a non-self-governing territory). Concerned about these developments, the 1949 General Assembly, over the opposition of the colonial powers (the United States abstaining), decided that it was "within the responsibility of the General Assembly to express its opinion on the principles which have guided or which may in future guide the Members concerned in enumerating the territories for which the obligation exists to transmit information under Article 73 (e) of the Charter."
The General Assembly, in 1952, established a special committee to draw up a list of criteria of self-government and, at its next session, voted itself competent to decide on the basis of this list whether reports were due on a given territory. Since that time, the General Assembly has formally approved the cessation of reports on a number of territories, finding that they had "attained a full measure of self-government." However, in each case the administering power in question had already announced, prior to that approval, that it would no longer transmit information on these territories. The territories and the dates of General Assembly approval were as follows: from 1953 to 1955, Puerto Rico (United States), Greenland (Denmark), Suriname and Curaçao (Netherlands); in 1959, Alaska and Hawaii (United States); in 1965, the Cook Islands (New Zealand); and in 1974, Niue (New Zealand).
It should be noted, however, that so long as a territory is not actually independent, the General Assembly considers that it has the right to reopen the question of the territory's status at any time. Thus, although France ceased transmitting information on New Caledonia in 1947, the General Assembly decided on 2 December 1986 that New Caledonia was a non-self-governing territory within the meaning of Chapter XI of the charter and it was again included in the list of such territories.
In 1967, the United Kingdom announced that since a number of its small Caribbean dependencies—namely, Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, and St. Lucia—had achieved the status of associated states with a "full measure of self-government," it would no longer submit reports on those territories. The General Assembly did not, however, accept the territories' new status as constituting full self-government and continued to consider them as non-self-governing. (All the associated states except Anguilla subsequently attained independence, and the United Kingdom resumed transmission of information regarding Anguilla in 1984.) A similar situation arose with respect to Brunei, in 1972, when the United Kingdom informed the Secretary-General that the territory had attained full internal self-government and that, consequently, the United Kingdom considered the transmission of information about it to be no longer appropriate. (Brunei became independent in 1984.)
Until the General Assembly began to assert a competence in the matter, the inclusion of a territory in the list of non-self-governing territories to which Article 73 applies was at the discretion of the administering power concerned. For instance, in 1946, the United Kingdom did not include Southern Rhodesia in the list of dependent territories under its administration because the territory was self-governing but subsequently changed its position after the unilateral declaration of independence by the white-majority regime in 1965.
When Spain and Portugal became UN members in 1955, they also refused to transmit information on their overseas territories, maintaining that these were not colonial possessions but "overseas provinces." Spain retreated from this position in 1960, to the "satisfaction" of the General Assembly, and began to submit reports. However, Portugal maintained its stand until 1974, when an internal upheaval brought about a change of government.
These differences concerning the obligation to transmit information under Article 73 (e) led the Assembly in 1960 to adopt a resolution that defined a "full measure of self-government" to mean one of three specific conditions: (1) emergence of the territory as a sovereign independent state, (2) free association with an independent state, or (3) integration with an independent state, both (2) and (3) to be the result of a free and voluntary choice of the people concerned and the people to possess certain specified rights and safeguards in their new status. Unless one of these three conditions pertained, the General Assembly asserted, the administering power had an obligation to transmit information on any territory that is "geographically separate and is distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it."
THE 1960 ASSEMBLY DECLARATION ON THE ENDING OF COLONIALISM Throughout the 1950s, the various disputes with colonial powers over the transmission of information on non-self-governing territories took place against a background of steady decolonization. Whether gracefully granted or bitterly fought for, sovereignty was achieved by a growing number of former colonial dependencies. In 1946, at the first working session of the General Assembly, only a handful of members had memories of recent foreign rule: India, the Philippines, and the four Arab countries that had been League of Nations mandate territories (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria). By 1959, eight Asian countries (Burma, Cambodia, Ceylon, Indonesia, Laos, Malaya, Nepal, and Pakistan) and two African countries (Ghana and Guinea) had become sovereign independent states. As these nations joined the UN, many of them after years of struggle against their former masters or with humiliating memories of the indignities of foreign rule, anticolonialist sentiment became increasingly bitter and significantly influenced the tone of the debates in the General Assembly. Wholeheartedly supported by the Soviet-bloc nations, the newly independent nations began a drive to put a speedy end to colonialism altogether, thus going far beyond anything specifically spelled out in the charter.
The 1960 General Assembly proved to be decisive for the triumph of the anticolonialist forces in the UN. At the opening of that session, 16 new African states and Cyprus became members, thereby bringing the total number of African and Asian nations to 44 out of a total UN membership of 100. In addition, members of the Afro-Asian Group, as it was called, knew that they could count on the support of the Soviet bloc, many Latin American countries, and the Scandinavian countries. By the end of the session, they had drafted the text of a Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples that was designed to serve as the UN's basic framework for its work in colonial matters, complementing the charter declaration.
Whereas the charter declaration had been a gentlemanly agreement among masters to look after the welfare of their subjects, the General Assembly declaration, in effect, was an assertion of the right of these subject peoples to be subjects no longer. Written from the viewpoint of the colonial peoples themselves, the declaration in its preamble recognizes "the passionate yearning for freedom in all dependent peoples"; the existence of "increasing conflicts resulting from the denial … of the freedom of such peoples, which constitute a serious threat to world peace"; and "the important role of the United Nations in assisting the movement for independence in Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories." The declaration then lists seven provisions: (1) the subjection of peoples to alien domination "is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and cooperation"; (2) "all peoples have the right to self-determination"; (3) inadequacy of preparedness "should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence"; (4) all armed action or repressive measures against dependent peoples "shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence"; (5) "immediate steps shall be taken … to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations"; (6) any attempt to disrupt the national unity and territorial integrity of a country "is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter"; and (7) all states "shall observe faithfully and strictly" the provisions of the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and "the present Declaration" on the basis of equality, noninterference in the internal affairs of states, and respect for the sovereign rights of all peoples.
Although the phrase "colonial powers" does not appear, the declaration was clearly and firmly directed against those countries. Nevertheless, such was the force of anticolonial sentiment that no colonial power cared to record a negative vote. Accordingly, on 14 December 1960, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples was adopted 89–0, with only nine abstentions (Australia, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
A year after the adoption of the declaration, the USSR took the initiative by asking the General Assembly to discuss the problem of implementing it. The ensuing debate led to the creation of a 17-member Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. Because of the importance attached to its work, seven additional members were added in the following year. Since that time, the composition of the Special Committee (in its early days called "the Special Committee of 24") has changed slightly when certain countries have withdrawn for various reasons, to be replaced by countries representing the same geopolitical grouping as the outgoing members. Originally, the committee included three colonial or administering powers—Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—but France, Spain, and the two most recalcitrant administering countries, Portugal and South Africa, were never members. In later developments, both the United Kingdom and the United States suspended their cooperation. Thus, the committee's deliberations have always been anticolonialist in tone.
In 1963, the committee's functions were expanded to include the work of the 1947 Committee on Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories, which was dissolved. At the same time, the General Assembly gave the committee the right to apprise the Security Council of any developments in any territory that it had examined that might threaten international peace and security. (Normally, subsidiary bodies do not have this right but must act through the General Assembly.) In addition, the General Assembly empowered the committee to examine information on the trust territories, as well as on non-self-governing territories—although the Trusteeship Council continued to exercise its normal functions until the graduation of the last trusteeship territory in 1994. The committee was also empowered to send visiting missions to dependent territories. Hence, since 1963, the committee has been the General Assembly's chief executive arm in colonial matters.
Besides considering problems connected with individual colonial territories, the committee debates topics of a more general nature assigned to it by the General Assembly—for example, the role played by foreign economic and military interests that are impeding the attainment of independence or exploiting the natural resources of the territories that rightfully belong to the indigenous inhabitants. The committee has been particularly active in the dissemination of information on colonial problems and in mobilizing international support and assistance for the colonial peoples and their efforts to achieve self-determination and independence.
In 1988, the General Assembly declared the decade 1990–2000 the Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. In 1991, it approved a plan of action for the Special Committee which it hoped would achieve the total elimination of colonialism by the year 2000. The plan of action called for the Special Committee to, among other things: formulate specific proposals for the elimination of the remaining manifestations of colonialism, and to report its findings each year to the General Assembly; to make concrete suggestions to the Security Council about developments in colonial territories that threaten international peace and security; to pay special attention to small territories, and dispatch visiting missions to those territories to gather information firsthand; and to continue to collect, prepare, and disseminate studies and articles on the problems of decolonization, including continuation of the periodical Objective: Justice and the special series called Decolonization.
In January, 1986, the United Kingdom informed the Special committee's chairman that it would no longer take part in the Committee's work, since, in its own opinion, all the remaining territories under its administration had chosen to remain in close association with the United Kingdom. However, the United Kingdom agreed to continue to fulfill its obligations under the charter and to transmit information to the committee under Article 73e. The UK also reiterated to the Fourth Committee in 1990 that it would respect the wishes of the people of any of its 10 remaining territories, no matter what the size of their population.
In February 1992, the United States suspended its cooperation with the Special Committee, claiming that it had focused on an outmoded agenda instead of new approaches aimed at addressing the needs of the few remaining non-self-governing territories.
In 2002, the following countries were represented on the Special Committee: Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Chile, China, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, Fiji, Grenada, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Papua New Guinea, Russian Federation, Saint Lucia, Sierra Leone, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, United Republic of Tanzania, and Venezuela.