African Decolonization and Cold War Politics in the United Nations

The Soviet Union and the Case of Libya (1947-1951)

by Yu, Jeeyoon
Fall 2006



Table of Contents


I. Historical Background
II. Overview on the United Nations Trusteeship Council
III. Research Hypothesis
IV. Analysis
     1. The Case of Libya
     2. Soviet Actions in the UN Trusteeship Council
V. Conclusion
VI. Endnotes
VII. Bibliography



I. Historical Background


            Although an Allied victory against the Axis Powers brought a long-sought end to the Second World War, the peace that had been attained immediately gave rise to an intensified friction--the Cold War--between the U.S.-centered Western democracies and the Soviet-centered Communist states. The Cold War provoked a realignment of forces on a global scale in which the two coalitions struggled against each other to expand their respective spheres of influence and promote their strategic interests by obtaining more military bases, lines of communication, and allies. Inevitably, former colonial outposts became major spots of contention.


II. Overview on the United Nations Trusteeship Council


            Established in 1946 by the United Nations as a successor to the League of Nations mandate system, the United Nations Trusteeship Council was designed to supervise governments of trust territories and lead the nonself-governing territories to self-rule or sovereignty, ultimately carrying out the process of decolonization. Like the former mandate system of the League of Nations, the trusteeship system was created on the grounds that colonial territories taken from nations defeated in war should not be annexed by the victorious powers but should be administered by a trust country under international supervision until their future status was determined. However, the Trusteeship Council, unlike the mandate system, welcomed petitions from trust territories on their independence and required periodic international missions to the territories.
            Pushing for the political, economic, and social advancement of dependent territories, the Trusteeship Council placed areas (under Article 77 of the United Nations Charter) "held under mandates established by the League of Nations after the First World War," "detached from 'enemy states' as a result of the Second World War," and those "voluntarily placed under the System by states responsible for their administration" under the trusteeships of "administering authorities" whose responsibilities were to maintain internal stability while supporting transitions to "self-government or independence." With the exception of South-West Africa (now Namibia), the remaining League of Nations mandates (Nauru, New Guinea, Ruanda-Urundi, British-administered Togoland and Cameroon, French-administered Togoland and Cameroon, the Pacific Islands, Western Samoa, Tanganyika, and Palestine became trust territories of the trusteeship system. However, by 1955, the Trusteeship Council had dealt with important matters in the territories of the former Italian colonies in addition to the twelve former mandates.
            An organization that met annually, the Trusteeship Council consisted of 1) all UN members administering trust territories, 2) the five permanent members of the Security Council, and 3) as many other non-administering members as needed to equalize the number of administering and non-administering members, elected by the United Nations General Assembly for renewable three-year terms. Each member had one vote, and decisions were taken by a simple majority of those present.
            With the independence of Palau, the last remaining trust territory, in 1994, the council terminated its operations. Since 1994, new tasks for the council have been proposed, including administering the global commons (e.g. the seabed and outer space) and serving as a forum for minority and indigenous peoples.


III. Research Hypothesis


            The United Nations was a political tool used by the USSR to disrupt the European administration of African colonies and ultimately curb the power of Western nations. It is unquestionable that the Soviet Union significantly affected the process of African decolonization via its influence in the UN Trusteeship Council; however, it is unclear how it did so.


IV. Analysis


1. The Case of Libya


            The most obvious indications of Soviet attempts to check the Western powers can be seen in various documents about the first major task presented to the UN Trusteeship Council--the disposition of the former Italian colonies. Seeking to thwart the extension of Western power into Third-World countries, the USSR not only pursued this objective in discussions inside, but also outside the UN regarding the territory of Libya.
           
            1) In the Hands of the Council of Foreign Ministers
           
            The London Conference from September through October 1945 was the first peace conference of World War II that marked the beginning of post-war "power politics" for colonies between the Eastern and Western blocs. The foremost territorial problem brought before the foreign ministers of China, Great Britain, France, USSR, and the United States--collectively called the Council of Foreign Ministers--was the question of Italy's colonial empire (Libya, Eritrea, Italian Somaliland), especially the colony of Libya. "Although all council members initially favored some form of trusteeship, no formula could be devised for disposing of Libya"[1] and the other colonies, due to the various opinions expressed by the negotiating parties concerning the preferred form of trusteeship for the Italian colonial holdings--the tickets to significant Mediterranean influence.
            Regarding the disposition of the territories, on September 18, 1945, Soviet foreign minister Molotov startled the other members of the "Big Five" by proposing to divide Libya into four separate trusteeships, claiming Tripolitania for the USSR and assigning Cyrenica to Britain and Fezzan to France. Molotov, in addition saying that the USSR needed a base in the Mediterranean for its merchant ships, declared that the "Soviet Union was extremely interested in the future development of the Mediterranean and Africa and believed that [íŽ] it was fully qualified to undertake the job" [2] of a trustee, reassuring the council that Moscow would not attempt to introduce the Soviet system into the area. The USSR "put in a bid [íŽ]for bases in Eritrea as well." [3] France, afraid of establishing a dangerous example of independence in North Africa, proposed returning the territory to Italy; Britain remained neutral and reserved judgment on the issue. Finally, the United States suggested that the Italian colonies should "be placed under international trusteeship under the United Nations Trusteeship Council, each governed by an administrator appointed by the United Nations and assisted by an Advisory Committee composed of representatives of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Italy and the territory concerned." [4]
            Because no consensus was reached, the matter was further discussed at the Second Meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers at Paris, beginning in April 1946. The Soviet Union had somewhat backed down from its past claim for the individual trusteeship of Tripolitania, suggesting this time that Libya should "be divided into four trusteeships, each to be jointly administered by Italy and one of the Big Four." [5] When its bid for joint Soviet-Italian trusteeship was rejected, the USSR declared its support of the original (and still holding) French proposal for sole Italian trusteeship without any fixed date for independence for all the relevant colonies. However, Britain objected to restoring Italy control over the colonies, especially Cyrenaica because of a wartime pledge it had made to the native Senussi religious order to keep Italian rule out of the area in exchange for their having supported the British war effort. Britain sought to "combat embarrassing Russian demands and engage American responsibility"[6] in the relevant areas and was therefore willing to accept the United States suggestion to have all the colonies placed under the trusteeship of the United Nations. But because it had complete control over the territories by virtue of conquest, Britain finally recommended to the council "maintenance of the status quo, i.e., a continuation of British occupation and control, postponing final disposition of the question for one year." [7]
            Up to this time, the United States had firmly opposed the Russian request and consistently advocated the position of placing the Italian colonies in international trusteeship under the United Nations with the objective of achieving "welfare of the inhabitants and their independence at the earliest practicable date." [8] At this meeting, however, the U.S. withdrew from its original collective trusteeship proposal, most likely fearing that it would "interfere with exclusive U.S. jurisdiction over the former Japanese islands in the Pacific" [9] in which it had special interest. The U.S. instead chose to promote the idea of Italian trusteeship, but on the condition that a definite date for Libyan and Eritrean independence be set; it was uncertain "whether Italy was in an economic position to assume the responsibility of trusteeship and whether the return of the colonies to Italy as trustee takes sufficiently into account the wishes of the inhabitants." [10] Ironically, however, "none of the conferees suggested consulting the native peoples of the ex-Italian colonies as to their wishes in the matter," [11] despite the philanthropic remarks that were made in session.
            At the end of the Second Meeting in July 1946, a draft article concerning the on the disposition of the former Italian colonies was adopted, but a final decision was deferred. In addition to the call for "renunciation by Italy of all rights to its former African colonies," [12] it was at last agreed that the "ultimate disposition of the colonies should be made by the four principal Allied powers in light of the wishes and welfare of the inhabitants and world peace and security, taking into account the views of other interested governments." [13] The declaration also stipulated that the concluding verdict should be made in accordance with one or any combination of three conditions: "(1) independence, (2) incorporation in neighboring territories, (3) trusteeship, exercised either by the United Nations as a whole, or by any one of them, or by Italy." [14] Also, a Four-Power commission of investigation was to be appointed to ascertain what the native people of the colonies desired.
            However, in the case the "Big Four"--Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States--do not come to a consensus on the future of the Italian colonies within one year after the Italian peace treaty goes into effect, the matter would then be referred to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Until the ultimate decision, the colonies (except Fezzan, which was administered by the French) would remain under British military administration. Although there was strong protest from the Italians regarding the surrender of Italian sovereignty, the Italian argument was ignored and the Italian peace treaty was ratified with the draft article and declaration unchanged on September 15, 1947.
            In early 1948, the Four Powers sent an investigating commission to Libya to ascertain the views of the inhabitants. The commissioners found that the majority of the people in each of the three provinces were eager for independence. However, they determined that none of the three zones were politically ready for self-government at that time. On the following July 20, the four foreign ministers' deputies began a lengthy discussion on the final disposition of Italy's former colonies. Although there were minor disagreements regarding Italian Somaliland and Eritrea, "the problem of Libya presented the most critical issues." [15] Because the issue of strategy in the Mediterranean was growing increasingly important, the Four Powers explicitly expressed their interests in the colonies. The Americans came to view their air-base at Mellaha in Tripolitania as essential and favored retention of British influence in the bases at Benghazi and Tobruk, pushing for British trusteeship in Cyrenaica. The British had transferred troops and supplies to Cyrenaica after evacuating Palestine, and also hoped to continue using the territory. Similar to the British, the French, who had conquered and occupied the Fezzan province, showed intentions of remaining in it as long as possible. Hence, Britain, France, and the United States wanted to postpone the final decision for a year, which was in stark contrast to the Russian proposal for Italian trusteeship for the whole of Libya. Once again, no agreement was reached.
            On September 7, 1948, the Soviet government, abruptly pointing out that the decision over the disposal of the Italian colonies would be referred to the United Nations General Assembly if consensus by the Four Powers was not reached by the upcoming September 15, called for an "immediate four-Power foreign ministers' conference to try to forestall a surrender to such delay." [16] In the convention that assembled on September 13, the Soviet Union unexpectedly proclaimed sponsorship for an international UN trusteeship with Italian advisory participation over Libya and Eritrea over a ten- year period (reminiscent of the original U.S. notion put forth in 1945) in its attempt to resolve the issue before it was turned over to the General Assembly. However, the other three Powers rejected the idea of an international trusteeship under which no foreign bases would be allowed, and no single solution was reached by September 15. Therefore, the whole problem of the Italian colonies was left to the General Assembly.
           
            2) Under the United Nations
           
            On April 6, 1949, the matter of the Italian colonial holdings came before the Political Committee of the United Nations (a subcommittee of the General Assembly) at Lake Success. In the beginning, each of the Four Powers submitted proposals with only slight changes from those previously presented in September 1948. The USSR continued to sponsor United Nations trusteeship for ten years as a precedent to independence, and France advocated Italian trusteeship. The United States and Great Britain both supported a British trusteeship over Cyrenaica and were committed to keeping out Soviet influence from the Italian territories; however, neither of them hoped for a return of Italian power to Tripolitania.
            In the interim, British foreign minister Ernest Bevin and his Italian counterpart Count Carlo Sforza put forward the Bevin-Sforza plan before the United Nations for consideration. According to the proposal, "Libya would come under UN trusteeship, and responsibility for administration in Tripolitania would be delegated to Italy, in Cyrenaica to Britain, and in Fezzan to France." [17] Libya would become independent after ten years in 1959. The plan was approved in the UN Political Committee, "with the United States supporting the majority, over the objections of the Soviet bloc and Arab-Asian nations." [18] However, the Bevin-Sforza plan was rejected by the UN General Assembly on May 18, falling one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for adoption. No further resolutions were brought up on the issue in the conference.
            However, Libyan cries for unity and independence caused dramatic changes in the positions of the Four Powers which were made apparent at the United Nations meeting in September 1949. Except France, which was extremely disconcerted by the rising tide of resentment in North Africa, the Four Powers competed to take Libyan aspirations into their respective policies. Britain and the United States supported "independence for Tripolitania in from three to five years," [19] while the Soviet Union, in a surprise move, proposed immediate independence for Libya, and that "within three months all foreign troops and all military personnel shall be withdrawn from Libyan territory." [20] Although this motion in the interests of the Soviet Union was not entertained, a UN resolution based mainly on the British-U.S. proposals was accepted in the General Assembly with an overwhelming majority of 49 votes for, 0 against, and 9 abstentions on November 21, 1949. Thus it was finally settled that a unified Libya including the three regions of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica should become independent by January 1, 1952; administration in the interim period was to be carried out by a "UN commissioner with an advisory council of the representatives of Egypt, France, Italy, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and four representative of the local population" [21] (one from each of the three provinces and one for the Libyan minorities). Interestingly, an amendment to include the Soviet Union was defeated.


2. Soviet Actions in the UN Trusteeship Council


            In addition to the tangible evidence of Soviet efforts to curb the Western powers found in records about colonial Libya, several less explicit, but noteworthy glimpses of this occurrence can be seen in annual records of UN Trusteeship Council sessions during the years 1946 to 1962, the period in which African decolonization was at its height. Although these subtle indications of Soviet influence are not documented in detail and are often sporadic, they provide compelling insight into little known dealings that may have affected decolonization.
            The Soviet Union engaged in dubious behavior from the advent of the United Nations Trusteeship Council. When the first session of the Council opened on March 26, 1947 at Lake Success, New York, only nine members attended: Australia (trustee for New Guinea), Belgium (Ruanda-Urundi), China, France (Cameroons and Togoland), Iraq, Mexico, New Zealand (Western Samoa), Great Britain (Tanganyika, Cameroons, Togoland), and the United States (Japanese mandated islands in the Pacific). The USSR did not attend this opening session, "maintaining the view that the trustee agreements did not go far enough and would tend to slow down the progress of the peoples toward independence." [22] Apparently, the Soviet Union sought independence for the trust territories because it wanted to prevent further dissemination of Western influence in areas that it could not easily gain access to.
            Unequivocal Soviet intentions were also expressed at the Paris assembly of UN in late 1948, when discussion on the precise powers of the Trusteeship council and of the administering authority ensued. There were two divergent views; one group held that the administrating authorities should be solely responsible for the legislation and administration of respective trust territories while the Trusteeship council would only be concerned with secondary matters such as submitting questionnaires, considering petitions, and inspecting and approving the annual reports of trustees. The other faction argued that the Trusteeship council itself should be endowed with administrative powers while the administrating authorities retained mandated, or nominal, power only. Consequently, "debates in the assembly showed signs that the trusteeship system was being used as a political platform." [23] In this dispute, the Soviet bloc seems to have supported the overriding power of the Trusteeship council because it has had no colonial experience and objected to the colonial system as a whole. Unfortunately for the USSR, the attempt to enlarge the power of the UN for it to take actual part in the administration of trust territories was put aside, most likely because the charter had defined the proper role of the UN as a body to "watch, criticize, admonish if need be and generally supervise territories administered under trust, but not to take any part in the actual process of administration."[24]
            By 1949, progress had been made especially in the social and economic fields, regardless of problems in climate, ethnology, and finance. However, there had been considerable criticism to match; this tendency was made evident at the fourth UN assembly in New York when "increasing conflict between the powers of the administrations on the spot and the claims of those who, to a large or small degree, were opposed to the existing colonial system" [25] was observed. In January 1950, the USSR "refused to participate in the United Nations Security Council (and subsequently in other United Nations organs) unless Communist China was seated in place of the Chinese Nationalist government." [26] The request was not granted, and the Soviet Union removed itself from the UN for all of 1950. However, records indicate that "a steadier evolution of the Trusteeship council and smoother working became possible by reason of the absence of the USSR;" [27] since taking its seat, the Soviet Union had tended to use its political clout in the Council to launch propaganda attacks on the so-called imperialists and their supposed exploitation of nonself-governing peoples. Even when the Soviet representative returned to the Trusteeship Council in 1951, "no change was observable in the Soviet attitude of obstructive criticism, and of propaganda generalizations from a few hand-picked items in reports," [28] and in the demand for stronger measures to promote immediate self-government. Although Soviet challenges to the Western powers are not readily visible in Trusteeship Council sessions, it cannot be doubted that these tackles existed.
            Strangely however, there is almost no documentation on the Soviet activities in the UN Trusteeship Council from the years 1953 through 1962. Whether it was because of repeated failures to get involved in trusteeship matters or a lack of allies in the Trusteeship Council, the Soviet Union increasingly gave less priority to UN conferences or trusteeship matters in Africa. It seemed that Soviet Union preferred "to deal with countries after--not before--they achieve national independence, on the assumption that the nationalists are convenient cat's-paws." [29] Brief annual records of Soviet Foreign Affairs also indicate that the USSR was constantly in the pursuit of favorable relations with former colonies outside UN sessions. After the USSR "urged the Socialist parties of the free world to form united fronts with local Communist parties and offered to aid colonial and semicolonial countries to achieve freedom from domination by the great Western powers" [30] in 1956, it consistently established diplomatic relations on its own with newly founded African states "as soon as the latter achieved independence" [31] into the early 1960s. Although the Soviet Union ceased trying to check the Western powers in the United Nations, it continued its pursuit of the goal through other means.


V. Conclusion


            Soviet policy during the Early Cold War (1947-51) focused on attacking colonialism, harming the reputation of the West, and seeping into local nationalist parties in unstable states. Regarding territories of ideological conflict, the USSR suffered a diplomatic defeat in the Balkans as the U.S. and Britain, following the Truman Doctrine of 1947, helped bring victory to the government anti-Communist forces of Greece that eventually led to the inclusion of Greece and Turkey into NATO. However, despite the victories in former colonies--several Middle Eastern states (Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon) became independent from their masters and the colonial governments in Tunisia and Algeria were extremely unpopular--the USSR did not consider Africa (or Libya for that matter) high on the Soviet list of priorities.
            Nevertheless, directly and indirectly, the USSR drove the process of African decolonization through its attempts to gain power in Northern Africa and to curtail the influence of Western European colonial powers. Because initial Soviet efforts to establish a sphere of influence in Africa was continuously thwarted by the weary Western democracies from the onset of debate on former colonial territories, the USSR had little choice but to push for immediate independence of trust territories so as to prevent Britain, France, and the United States from benefiting as trustees of regions outside of Soviet control. Also, the Soviet Union implicitly propelled decolonization through their propaganda campaigns in the UN. For example, a source states that the USSR made "long speeches about the veils of colonialism at every meeting of the Trusteeship Council, and gave close support to grievances expressed by Africans." [32]
            Although it is of no question that the Soviet Union used its power to influence African decolonization, the UN was not the main instrument it utilized in its activities. Especially in the case of Libya, much more debate and negotiation was done in the meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers rather than in the UN Trusteeship Council. The UN was indeed a political tool manipulated by the USSR, but it was not the only means that the Soviet Union used in its efforts to hold the Western powers in check.


VI. Endnotes


[1]
"The United Nations and Libya." Library of Congress Country Studies (1987)
[2]
Sulzberger, The New York Times Sept 1945.
[3]
Novack, "The Big Five at London." Nov 1945, pp. 333-336.
[4]
Beasley, "Beasley to Chifley and Evatt: Cablegram 24 London." Feb 1946.
[5]
Shalom, "The United States and Libya Part 1: Before Qaddafi." May 1990.
[6]
Beasley, "Minutes of Meeting of Prime Ministers." Apr 1946.
[7]
Li, Fu-jen. "The Big Four at Paris." Aug 1946, pp. 242-245
[8]
Byrnes, "Report, Second Meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers," May 1946.
[9]
Shalom, Stephen R. loc.cit.
[10]
Byrnes, loc.cit.
[11]
Li, Fu-jen. loc.cit.
[12]
Yust, "Italian Colonial Empire." Britannica Book of the Year 1947: 426-427.
[13]
Byrnes, loc.cit.
[14]
Yust, op.cit., p. 427.
[15]
Yust, "Italian Colonial Empire." Britannica Book of the Year 1949: 365.
[16]
ibid., p.365.
[17]
"The United Nations and Libya." loc.cit.
[18]
Shalom, loc.cit.
[19]
Yust, "Italian Colonial Empire." Britannica Book of the Year 1950: 387.
[20]
Hamilton, The New York Times Oct 1949.
[21]
Yust, "Italian Colonial Empire." Britannica Book of the Year 1950 op.cit. p.388.
[22]
Yust, "Trustee Territories." Britannica Book of the Year 1948: 736.
[23]
Yust, "Trust Territories." Britannica Book of the Year 1949: 637.
[24]
Yust, "Trust Territories." Britannica Book of the Year 1950: 680.
[25]
ibid. p.679.
[26]
Dudley, L. "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." The Americana Annual 1951:686.
[27]
Yust, "Trust Territories." Britannica Book of the Year 1951:683.
[28]
Yust, "Trust Territories." Britannica Book of the Year 1952:687.
[29]
Gunther, John. "Inside Africa." p. 888
[30]
Dudley, L. "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." The Americana Annual 1957:796.
[31]
Dudley, L. "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." The Americana Annual 1961:774.
[32]
Gunther, John. op.cit. p.889.

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Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1953. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1953.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1954. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1954.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1955. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1955.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1956. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1956.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1957. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1957.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1958. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1958.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1959. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1959.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1960. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1960.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1961. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1961.

Yust, Walter. "United Nations." Britannica Book of the Year: 1962. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd, 1962.