IO Files

United States Delegation Working Paper


Competence of the Fourth Committee of the General Assembly

the problem

The problem is to determine the Delegation’s attitude on a proposal laid before the Fourth Committee by Iraq to the effect that “The Fourth Committee reaffirms that in accordance with the terms of the Charter it is empowered to discuss political matters and political aspects in regard to non-self-governing territories”.

This matter has arisen out of an effort on the part of the Arab States to introduce a discussion of the Moroccan question in all of its aspects in the Fourth Committee. To this the French Delegation has taken vehement exception on points of order on the ground that a discussion of political and constitutional aspects of Morocco is beyond the competence of the Fourth Committee under the terms of the Charter. On Friday morning the French Delegation, in protest, walked out of the Committee and has been bringing strong pressure on the British and United States Delegations to do likewise.1 References by Guatemala to the political situation in British Honduras, by Greece to the Cyprus question, and by Yemen to alleged British violations in Aden, have precipitated the same question.2

The basic question as to the limits of the competence of the Fourth Committee, and indeed of the Assembly, in regard to political aspect of non-self-governing territories has been before the Fourth Committee for several years. The Iraqi motion is intended to force a decision in favor of the widest interpretation of the Committee’s powers on this question.

[Page 664]


Legal Aspect

Under Article 73 (e) of the Charter, Members of the United Nations agree to transmit regularly to the Secretary-General for information purposes “statistical and other information of a technical nature relating to economic, social and educational conditions in” non-self-governing territories which are not under trusteeship. The General Assembly set up a Special Committee on Information Transmitted Under Article 73(e) of the Charter to consider these reports and to report its conclusions to the Fourth Committee of the General Assembly. Since under Article 73 (e) there is no requirement to transmit political information to the United Nations, this Special Committee has concentrated on economic, social and educational matters.3

The Fourth Committee, however, has in practice taken up discussion of both trusteeship matters and of non-self-governing territories, some of which are of a political nature. For instance, under Article 73(a), Members of the United Nations agree “to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social and educational advancement”. Under Article 73(b), Members agree “to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions …”.

Although under Article 73 (e), Members are not required to transmit political information concerning non-self-governing territories, a majority of the members of Committee 4 take the view that the General Assembly, under Article 10, and under the specific provisions of Article 73(a) and 73(b) does have the right to discuss questions concerning the political advancement and the political aspirations of the peoples of non-self-governing territories. The British, French, Belgians and others have stoutly maintained that Sections 73 (a), (b), (c) and (d) are a part of a unilateral declaration and are not within the competence of the General Assembly or any of its Committees. They maintain that they would never have subscribed to the Charter on any other interpretation. It would seem, however, that on legal grounds, this view is open to serious question.4

[Page 665]

Political Aspect

The question has a serious political aspect. France has manifested from the beginning a super sensitivity with regard to the discussion of conditions in Morocco, and, as stated above, walked out of the Fourth Committee when the Committee showed its determination to discuss conditions in Morocco. The British position is that, whatever the legal interpretation of the Charter may be, firmly maintained at San Francisco, that it must be clearly understood that the United Kingdom would not assume responsibility for international accountability with respect to its dependent areas.

The British and French take so serious a view of the matter that if the United States takes the position that the Fourth Committee is competent to discuss political questions, they will feel seriously affronted. The United States consequently finds itself in a position where failure to side with France and Great Britain may cause serious political difficulties. Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands, as well as several other delegations held much the same view as the UK and France.5

Parliamentary Situation

The problem is made the more difficult by the situation in the Fourth Committee, which is composed of eight administering authorities, and 52 non-administering authorities. The latter, in most cases lacking experience and knowledge of colonial problems, many of them smarting under former discriminatory treatment by the white races, as a rule make common cause against the administering authorities. While the eight administering powers on particular issues often secure the support of some twelve others, some thirty to thirty-five votes are usually cast against them.

So far as practical results are concerned, a point of order by an administering authority, in the course of the debate, may prove quite futile, since even if the President sustains the point of order, he can be, and frequently is, over-ruled by an overwhelming vote against the administering authorities.

Public Relations

In the discussions of the Fourth Committee, the issues are usually phrased in terms of human rights and the majority attempt to make it appear that the administering authorities, having opposed majority proposals, are engaged in the denial of human rights. Many of the NGO’s appear to support the majority opinion and exercise considerable influence on the American public and press. It is clear, therefore, that public relations and press aspects of this question are important factors to take into account.

  1. The events described in this paragraph regarding Morocco occurred on Thursday and Friday, November 22 and 23. The French delegates withdrew on November 23. For the proceedings of the Fourth Committee during these two days, see United Nations, Officiai Records of the General Assembly, Sixth Session, Fourth Committee, pp. 41 ff. (hereafter cited as GA (VI), Fourth Committee).

    For documentation on the Moroccan question in the General Committee at this same session, see pp. 135 ff.

  2. Events in the Fourth Committee at this same time with regard to South West Africa were also related to this problem; see pp. 673 ff.
  3. For documentation regarding U.S. policy with regard to Chapter XI of the UN Charter in general, see Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. ii, pp. 340 ff., and ibid., 1950, vol. ii, pp. 434 ff. For documentation with particular reference to Article 73(e), that is, the transmission of information regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories, see ibid., 1947, vol. i, pp. 279 ff., and ibid., 1948, vol. i, Part 1, pp. 275 ff.
  4. For the proceedings of the Fourth Committee from November 19 when the Committee began its discussion of the Report of the Special Committee on Information Transmitted under Article 73 (e) of the Charter (UN Doc. A/1836), see GA (VI), Fourth Committee, pp. 21 ff.
  5. For a statement to the Fourth Committee on November 21 by Channing H. Tobias, the United States delegate, see GA (VI) Fourth Committee, pp. 32 and 33.