Ensuring United Nations Trusteeship of the Global Commons

Keynote Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam
International Conference on Education for the Common Heritage
Oporto, Portugal, 1 November 2013

I warmly commend the Serralves Foundation on its 25th anniversary. The world would be a much better place, if we could do globally what the Serralves Foundation has done locally here in Portugal to promote environmental education among the young people of this country.

I feel honoured to speak to this extra-ordinary gathering of environmental activists, eminent scholars, visionary thinkers and dreamers who dare to envision a whole different way of organizing global governance to better manage the common heritage of humanity: the global commons.

I speak to you with deep humility as I do not have much expertise on the subject of this conference. But, as a former UNICEF official, I do have a genuine interest in it, as I was deeply involved in policy and advocacy work with the credo – we must protect the environment for our children, and we must protect our children so they can safeguard the environment.

Reading the background papers for the conference, and the literature on the global and local commons, the Earth Condominium, etc. I feel awed by the audacity of the proposals contained therein, some of which are, frankly, a bit beyond my intellectual capacity to fully fathom.

I am fascinated and intrigued by the profound philosophical and scientific concepts articulated in the discussion paper, some of which, as I said, are slightly beyond my grasp.

However, I do totally agree with the thrust of the argument that we have now arrived at a juncture in human history when we need to think beyond the paradigm of sovereign nation-states and conventional market mechanisms, to broader planetary concerns as the issues of climate change, global warming, pandemic diseases, weapons of mass destruction and cyber security have brought home to all of us.

And beyond these phenomena, the positive possibilities brought about by the rapid pace of globalization in every sphere of our life and social intercourse, also call for some out-of-the-box approaches to re-engineering global governance, and global institutions like the United Nations.

I do not have many specific or original proposals in this regard. But as someone who devoted my whole professional career and much of my adult life in the service of the United Nations, the one idea that has often intrigued me is how to get the UN to deal with the issues of the global commons in a systemic way at the highest policy level.

In that context, I have long felt fascinated by a proposal to convert the now practically defunct Trusteeship Council of the United Nations to a “Trusteeship of the Global Commons”, first proposed in a 1994 report entitled “Our Global Neighbourhood” by the Commission on Global Governance.

Co-chaired by former Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson and former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Sridath Ramphal of Guyana, the Commission comprised such leaders and luminaries as Ali Alatas of Indonesia, Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, Jacques Delors of France, Enrique Iglesias of Uruguay, Wangari Mathai of Kenya, Sadako Ogata of Japan, Maurice Strong of Canada, Yuli Vorontsov of Russia, and many others.

My good friend Ambassador Hans Dahlgren of Sweden, a true internationalist, was the Secretary-General of the Commission.

Coming from such highly respected mainstream national and global leaders, the idea certainly deserves careful consideration.

And if the idea was considered relevant two decades ago, it is even more so today as the negative as well as positive forces of globalization have made it even more pertinent and urgent.

By way of background, when the UN was established in 1945 there were only 50 founding member-states, compared to 193 members today. Most countries that were not members of the UN at that time, were colonies of various imperial powers. The UN put in motion a process of decolonization, and promoted the principle of self-determination, that led to eventual independence of many countries, and their joining the UN as new members.

But there were also a group of about a dozen countries or territories that were not colonies as such, but that were not independent states either. These “non-self-governing” territories were under the “trusteeship” or protectorate status of other states – such as Southwest Africa (Namibia) under South Africa; Somaliland under Italy; New Guinea under Australia; Nauru under New Zealand; Tangyanika and Zanzibar under Britain; New Caledonia under France; Micronesia, Palau, under the USA, etc.

The UN set up a special “Trusteeship Council” to oversee the process of self-determination of these trust territories, some of which later became independent or joined some existing states.

The Commission on Global Governance noted that by 1994 the Trusteeship Council, one of the UN’s six principal organs, had already completed its major task of facilitating the post-war process of decolonization, and overseen the progress of the so-called “trust territories” to self-government or independence.

Meanwhile, a new need had emerged for international trusteeship to be exercised over the ‘global commons’ in the collective interest of humanity, including our future generations. The Commission, therefore, recommended that the UN take-over this responsibility through a thoroughly redesigned Trusteeship of the Global Commons.

Trusteeship of the Global Commons

The ‘global commons’ would include the atmosphere, outer space, the oceans beyond national jurisdiction, and the related environment and life-support systems that contribute to the support of human life. The new global trusteeship would also encompass the responsibilities that each generation must accept towards future generations.

As the Commission argued, these are all areas of vital interest to all nations. Prudent and equitable management of the global commons, is crucial to the future well-being and progress, perhaps even the survival, of humanity.

The management of the commons, including the articulation of the rights and responsibilities of states and other entities for the development and use of their resources, should ideally be subject to trusteeship exercised by a body acting on behalf of all nations.

The high level and trans-national nature of the responsibilities make it appropriate for this body to be a principal organ of the United Nations, like the Economic and Social Council, the Security Council and the General Assembly. Hence the Commission’s proposal that the Trusteeship Council, now free of its original responsibilities, be given the mandate of exercising trusteeship over the global commons.

Currently, the issue of the global commons is handled in a rather haphazard manner by several UN agencies and entities – including the General Assembly, ECOSOC, the Commission on Sustainable Development, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), UNCHS/Habitat, UNDP, etc. But global commons is not a prime agenda of any of these agencies and entities, and is always relegated to low priority.

Recognizing the great difficulty in amending the UN Charter to create a new principal organ of the UN or a brand new Specialized UN agency dedicated exclusively to the cause of the ‘global commons’, I personally feel that there is much practical wisdom in giving a new mandate to the existing Trusteeship Council.

Such a revamped new ‘Trusteeship Council for the Global Commons’ would become the chief forum for dealing with global environmental issues and other trans-national matters that transcend national jurisdiction, and cannot be handled effectively through normal market mechanisms alone.

Its functions would include administration of environmental treaties in such fields as climate change, biodiversity, outer space, and the Law of the Sea. It would refer, as appropriate, any economic or security issues arising from these matters to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, the Security Council or the General Assembly.

The current UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) would continue to report certain issues to ECOSOC, as at present, but it would refer matters related to the global commons or “problems without borders or passports” to the new Trusteeship Council.

The role proposed for the revamped Trusteeship Council would be in keeping with the important responsibilities originally assigned to it when it was established as a principal organ of the UN, with its own chamber at the UN in New York. But the changes in its mandate would require amendments to Chapters XII and XIII of the UN Charter.

The new Council could be composed, as the old one was, of representatives of a number of member-states. The General Assembly of the UN representing all member states would determine the number and criteria for its membership and operational modalities.

The Commission on Global Governance in its wisdom acknowledged that the functions of the Trusteeship Council in this new role would be such that it would benefit enormously from contributions of civil society organizations.

It noted, for example, that as provided for in article 86.2 of the UN Charter, each member of the new Trusteeship Council could designate one specially qualified person to represent it. A similar provision could leave it open to governments to nominate a public official or someone with the required qualifications from civil society.

Many administrative and substantive matters would need to be considered if this proposal were to be implemented. But the most important step would be a conceptual breakthrough acknowledging that the security of our planet, and the shared responsibility for managing the global commons, requires the kind of solidarity that transcends the conventional nation-state and laissez-faire market mechanisms, and empowerment of the UN system to take the lead in doing so.

I find this an exciting possibility, but I suspect that some participants at this conference would probably consider this proposal rather modest and minimalist. For example, it deals with some aspects of the global commons, but not with the shared management of the local commons, about which some of us feel quite passionate.

On the other hand, many governments at the UN considered even this modest initial proposal as too radical. It is worth noting that despite the euphoria of the end of the Cold War and visions of openness to restructure the United Nations at the dawn of the new millennium, hardly any of the original major recommendations of the Commission on Global Governance, and several other creative proposals for the reform of the UN were implemented.

Challenges of reforming the UN

As a long-time UN official, I have noted that there is a built-in and deep-rooted conservatism in the UN system that makes it extremely difficult to bring about any radical reform that might undermine the powers of the most powerful founder-members of the UN, as well as those of small powers who jealously safeguard what they consider their sovereign rights.

Thus, we continue to have a very undemocratic and out-dated composition of the Security Council – with a few countries wielding veto power- that reflects the world of 1945 rather than the current realities of the 21st century.

A similar situation prevails regarding the appointment of the senior-most officials of the UN Secretariat, and heads of the Bretton Woods institutions, where some archaic un-written “gentlemen’s agreements” prevail over more transparent and merit-based recruitment system.

That is why, most comprehensive UN reform proposals either drag on endlessly – such as in the case of the reform of the Security Council – or are implemented in very sporadic manner – such as the merit-based and competitive selection of UN’s top officials. And some really creative proposals are adopted in a half-hearted and watered-down manner, such as the “the responsibility to protect”.

Sometimes, when the really significant reform proposals get nowhere, diplomats at the UN tend to tinker with endless procedural reforms of the executive boards and other governance structures of UN funds and programmes, and inter-agency coordination at headquarters and the field-level, which do not affect the power and perks of the most powerful nations. And sometimes, to accommodate the interests of the newly emerging powers – without compromising those of the old world powers – new institutions and mechanisms are created, such as the G-7 and the G-20.

Now, while radical reforms of existing international organizations maybe difficult, we must not underestimate the possibilities of incremental reforms, and many good things that can be accomplished through such reforms.

Let us remember the old saying that “perfection can be the enemy of the good”. Overtime, incremental reforms can also add up to significant change. In that spirit, I would hope that we can all push for the transformation of the UN’s currently defunct Trusteeship Council into a new and vibrant Trusteeship of the Global Commons.

While we would want this revamped ‘Trusteeship of the Global Commons’ to be as powerful as we can, and empower the one truly global organization we have – the United Nations – it is perhaps wise not to put all our eggs in that single basket.

Accordingly, we should also develop other viable alternative or complementary mechanisms, as I am sure we will be discussing at this conference.

The original proposal for the “UN Trusteeship of the Global Commons” dealt only with the management of the physical environment – the oceans beyond national jurisdiction, outer space, and the related environment and life-support systems.

Today many advocates of the commons approach would also want it to include two other important issues:

1) the management of intellectual property such as the discovery of life-saving and life-enhancing agricultural, industrial and medical inventions, and information and communication technology, including the internet, and

2) the management of the “local commons”.

David Bollier, a prolific American writer, activist and policy strategist on the global and local commons, offers many innovative suggestions and insights on these issues in his very touching essay on “The Healing Logic of the Commons”.

Intellectual Property and Cultural Heritage

Bollier and many others make the case that the governance of the global commons, whether through the UN or other mechanisms, should include the management of some aspects of intellectual property that can be used to either vastly empower and liberate people or to dominate and oppress them.

There are many proposals for the management of the commons at the global level, including charging of very modest rental or transaction fees that could mobilize huge sums of money to finance multilateral development programs and institutions.

These could include: carbon emissions, military spending and arms exports, foreign exchange transactions, international trade, airline tickets, maritime freight, ocean fishing, sea-bed mining, satellite parking spaces, use of electromagnetic spectrum and the internet.

Income generated from fees for the use of these global commons can be used to protect our planet from global warming; to restore any damage to the global commons; to reimburse those negatively affected by the use of these resources; to provide public goods; to combat poverty; and for investment in transitioning to a sustainable future for all.

There is a certain urgency to do this as there is now a dangerous large-scale market-driven campaign of privatization of the global as well as local commons.

The corporate sector is now furiously encroaching and enclosing the commons space. It is not

only land and oceans that are being enclosed. Mathematical algorithms can now be privately owned if they are embedded in patented software. Genetic codes of food grains can be patented for the benefit of new entrepreneurs, potentially depriving farmers who cultivated such grains for centuries and even millennia.

We hear about the great battles and multi-billion dollar law-suits for trademarks and copy rights among the world’s corporate giants, such as Apple versus Samsung, Coke versus Pepsi, McDonald’s versus Burger King, Microsoft versus the European Union. Some of these encroach on what should really be in the public domain.

For example, the Internet and the related technologies should now be subject to some rules of global governance as “public goods” or “global commons”. But these are now vulnerable to gross abuse not only by authoritarian governments like those of North Korea or China, but as we have seen recently in the WikiLeaks affair, even democratic countries like USA abuse them to spy against their allies and to restrict their own citizens’ right to information.

On the positive side, we are witnessing today a spontaneous and powerful global movement called “commons-based peer production”. Wikipedia with millions of entries in over 160 languages is a prime example of it, as are the open-access academic journals bypassing expensive commercial journal publishers, and thousands of other nonproprietary “open source” software produced collaboratively.

How we manage these global commons can either greatly benefit or harm the whole of humanity. It is our duty to ensure enlightened stewardship of these commons we inherit or create together, such as the gifts of nature, intellectual property, and our cultural heritage, and pass them on, undiminished or enhanced, to future generations.

Management of the Local Commons

Another important dimension of the management of the commons that deserves greater attention and action is the governance of the “local commons”, and how we can empower local communities to manage their own resources with minimal reliance on the market or the state.

We recall and honour Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University/USA, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her pioneering work on the management of the local commons such as community forests and water resources around the world, and how they support environmental sustainability and social justice.

A big part of Ostrom’s field research was conducted in the villages of my home country of Nepal. Her work in Nepal as well as in Africa and elsewhere showed how societies have developed diverse institutional arrangements to manage natural resources and avoid ecosystem collapse in many cases.

After many years of painstaking field research and innovative theorizing, Ostrom identified some basic design principles of successful commons management in her path-breaking 1990 book, Governing the Commons.

Hundreds of studies by Ostrom and other scholars over the past several decades have shown that people can and do successfully manage their land and water, and forests and fisheries as shared commons.

Ostrom’s great achievement was to debunk the established wisdom of mainstream economics that glorifies unfettered market-mechanism and private property rights.

Most economists tend to subscribe to the view popularized by a biologist Garrett Hardin who wrote a famous essay in 1968 entitled “The tragedy of the commons.” The classic example of this “tragedy” is this – if you have a shared pasture upon which many herders can graze their cattle, no single herder will have a rational incentive to hold back – and so he will put as many cattle on the commons as possible, take as much as he can for himself. The pasture will inevitably be over-exploited and ruined, thus causing a “tragedy.”

This line of reasoning implied that only a regime of private property rights and markets could solve the tragedy of the commons, as only people with private ownership would be motivated to protect their grazing lands.

But Hardin and others misrepresent the concept of the commons as an open-access regime, operating in a free-for-all scenario where there are no boundaries to the grazing land, no rules for managing it, and no community of users.

But a properly managed commons has boundaries, rules, monitoring of usage, punishment of free-riders, and social norms. A commons requires that, there be a community willing to act as a steward of a resource.

Elinor Ostrom’s work helped dispel the portrayal of the commons as a “tragedy” and established it as a positive communal resource that can be harnessed for the public good.

Unlike the global commons the management of the local commons requires a different approach. While the UN can set some normative guidelines, we should be mindful that no single government or inter-governmental mechanism at the global level can effectively tackle the complex and diverse challenges of managing the local commons.

Hence careful consideration should be given to Ostrom’s suggestion for a polycentric approach, where key management decisions are made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible.

Next steps

In pursuing this broad governance agenda of the global commons, against great odds, I would like to commend the work of the Commons Cluster of the ECOSOC-accredited NGOs at the United Nations. It has been advocating for the UN and other international organizations to adopt a long-

term development strategy that recognizes and cherishes the global commons as the common heritage of humanity.

I was happy to note that a network of civil society organizations, including the Commons Cluster, the Institute of Planetary Synthesis, the Association of World Citizens, etc offered a number of interesting and creative suggestions in the lead up to the 2012 Rio+20 Conference to help restore, protect, and replenish natural resources, and fund the shift to a commons-based global economy.

Some of these ideas are reflected in the post-2015 global development agenda that the UN is now formulating. But much more needs to be done.

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN, and the beginning of a new post-2015 global agenda for sustainable development, perhaps the time has come for the international community to consider setting up a new high level international commission, similar to those that helped establish the Bretton Woods institutions and the United Nations. Such a commission could be tasked to develop a bold new vision and plan for the creation of a worldwide commons-based economy and its global and local governance.

I would suggest that this recommendation and an advocacy plan to pursue it vigorously should be one of the main outcomes of this conference.

Beyond markets and GNP

Many advocates of the “commons approach” strongly criticize market-centric neoliberal economics, and the state-dominated international order.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that neoliberal economic policies have revved up the engines of economic growth, the industrial revolution, and great technological innovations that have improved the living standards, and lifted billions of people in the world out of poverty.

Where these policies have failed is in giving adequate attention to issues of equity, inclusion, social justice, the neglect of the degradation of our natural environment, and non-recognition or poor management of the global and local commons.

The single-minded pursuit of the Gross National Product or GNP as the principal measure of a country’s prosperity and people’s well-being has long been recognized as deeply flawed.

Those of us who believe in and advocate for the commons approach are deeply skeptical about the trickle-down approach of economic growth, and glorification of GNP.

While private income and collective GNP are, of course, important, let us not forget their limitations. Robert F. Kennedy captured these limitations beautifully when he said way back in 1968 that:

“The Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play”, he said, “It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Now, the commons approach too is, of course, not a magic bullet or a panacea that is somehow exempt from the frailties of human follies.

Indeed, the “commoners” are often viewed by mainstream economists and politicians as naïve, idealistic fringe activists, which sometimes we are. But I believe that we are on the right side of history, as some of our ideas and ideals that were once seen as naïve and unrealistic are now increasingly becoming recognized as practical and even essential.

Let us remember that a revolutionary idea of one century or a generation becomes the common sense of the next one.

Three centuries ago when feudalism was the global norm, it would have been difficult to imagine that one day the world would embrace the concept of human rights – of liberty, equality and fraternity among human beings.

Two centuries ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that the very common practice of slavery would be seen as inhuman and would be abolished. Even a century ago, it would have been hard to imagine that women should and would have equal rights with men.

And who would have imagined a century ago that one day great colonial empires, including Portugal, where the sun never set, would be dissolved, and a United Nations organization would be created?

So, dear friends, let us not despair when our advocacy for a non-market-exclusive and non-sovereignty-restrained global governance of the common heritage of humanity is laughed at as impractical and idealistic by the rulers of our world today.

Let us persevere for our long-term goal of a world without national borders, national armies, and national sovereignty, and for humane global and local governance to promote the best interest of humanity, including our future generations.

As the old Chinese saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Let us be prepared to take those baby steps; judiciously accept incremental changes, even as we continue to push the envelope and strive for more radical but enlightened reforms of global governance, with the United Nations at its heart.

Thank you.