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Our planet needs trusteeship to meet challenges

India is part of G-20 troika and will host the 2022 meeting. Thus, it could use the opportunity for realising the quest for global leadership. With India set to take the UNSC seat on January 1, 2021, it will provide a unique platform at the right time to build consensus among the members for the revival of the UN Trusteeship Council and crystallise a new mandate for environment and global commons.

Our planet needs trusteeship to meet challenges

CLARION CALL: India’s pitch for trusteeship of the planet assumes significance amid the environmental crisis that has been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Reuters



Bharat H Desai

Jawaharlal Nehru Chair & Professor of International Law, JNU

The call for ‘trusteeship of the planet’, given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his virtual address to the G-20 meeting on November 21, holds significance for our world that is facing an environmental crisis, now exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The idea of holding something in ‘trust’is ancient and rooted in different civilisations. Gandhiji mooted the notion of ‘trusteeship’ as a socio-economic philosophy wherein he believed that the wealthy people could be persuaded to part with their wealth to help the poor. The trusteeship formula was prepared by Gandhi’s co-workers, Narhari Parikh and Kishorelal Mashruwala. As it gained momentum during the freedom struggle, several eminent industrialists followed the Gandhian credo. The spirit of trusteeship was carried forward by his disciple Vinoba Bhave in the Bhoodan movement.

On May 21, 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group voted to designate a new geologic epoch, admitting the now unmistakable imprint of human activities on the earth. Hence, we need to be alive to the adage that the earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not anyone’s greed. The landmark 1972 report of the Club of Rome — the Limits to Growth — did underscore the rapacious human capacity to traumatise the planet earth.

At the global level, US scholar Edith Brown Weiss propounded the notion of the ‘Planetary Trust’ in her seminal work in 1984. “The human species holds the natural and cultural resources of the planet in trust for all generations of the human species. This planetary trust obligates each generation to preserve the diversity of the resource base and to pass the planet to future generations in no worse condition than it receives it. Thus, the present generation serves both as a trustee for future generations and as a beneficiary of the trust,” she emphatically said. The notion of ‘planetary trust’ rests on a normative framework wherein the present generation serves both as a trustee for future generations and as a beneficiary of the trust. In fulfilling our role as planetary trustees, we can draw upon teachings shared by nearly all the cultures and civilisations. In fact, principles of intergenerational equity are at the heart of the trust since it applies to the present generation as beneficiaries.

As a corollary to the idea of trusteeship, it now makes logical sense for India to also work on the idea for the revival of the UN Trusteeship Council (UNTC) as a primary vehicle that still remains on the UN Charter. The idea of trusteeship, which was at the basis of the original mandate for TC under the UN, comprised entrusting administration of some territories till the time they attain self-government or independence. After completing the historical mission in supervising independence of all 11 trust territories, the UNTC decided to suspend its work.

This author had mooted the idea for ‘revival of the UNTC with a new mandate’ in a talk at the World Bank in Washington DC on January 15, 1999. The TC still remains part of the UN Charter. So, it can be revived with a ‘new mandate’ to oversee the environment and global commons that can include oceans (beyond the limits of national jurisdiction), atmosphere, outer space and possibly even Antarctica, subject to their respective regulatory regimes. Such a resurrection of the TC, with a new mandate, will require an amendment under Article 108 of the UN Charter.

As the planet earth gets denuded of precious natural resources, poisoning of air, water and land, grim reality of climate change and oceans choked with marine litter and plastics, it is time we have cutting-edge ideas to save our only earth from becoming a wasteland. In its 75th anniversary year, the UN needs to reinvent itself to be in tune with present-day challenges. The PM did call for ‘comprehensive UN reforms’ in his September 2020 address at the virtual meet of the UN General Assembly. “We cannot fight today’s challenges with outdated structures,” the PM declared. Therefore, India not only needs to work for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, but also seek revival of the UNTC for addressing global environmental challenges for securing a better future for the generations to come.

Terming the idea for UNTC revival as a ‘common concern’ in a communication of March 12, 2019, to this author, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres did refer to “different initiatives related to the protection of the environment and the conservation and sustainable use of its resources.” Similarly, on January 28, 2019, the President of the 73rd UN General Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, shared the “sentiment that preserving and caring for our planet and protecting the environment are among the most pressing challenges we face globally.” “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,” the UNGA president said.

India is part of the G-20 troika and will host the 2022 meeting. Thus, India could use the opportunity for realising our quest for global leadership. Hence, as India is set to take the UNSC seat on January 1, 2021, it will provide a unique platform at the right time to build consensus among the members for revival of the UNTC and crystallise a new mandate for the environment and global commons. It will help bring back to life a pivotal UN organ for the betterment of the world at this time of great perplexity. One hopes that the PMO and the MEA will now rise to the occasion to duly prepare the groundwork for translating the call for trusteeship of the planet into action. 


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