29 February 2008

U.N. Resumes Struggle To Meet Contemporary Decolonisation Target

The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation met February 28th to begin its annual consideration of the remaining sixteen non self-governing territories. In the Atlantic/Caribbean, the territories in question are Bermuda, Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and the US Virgin Islands. The commonwealth/territory of Puerto Rico is not on the U.N list although two consecutive White House reports in 2005 and 2007 have confirmed its non self-governing political status – so perhaps they should be on the list.

In the Pacific, the territories are American Samoa and Guam administered by the U.S. The commonwealth/territory of the Northern Mariana Islands is not on the U.N. list but expanding U.S. Congressional control is becoming increasingly clear, effectively eroding what was originally thought as an autonomous arrangement – at least that was the agreement. Perhaps, they should also be on the U.N. list. Other territories are Tokelau (admirably) administered by New Zealand, and New Caledonia administered by France. Other ‘listed’ territories include Pitcairn and St. Helena (U.K.).

The organizational session of the meeting proceeded in the usual manner with an opening statement by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who announced the election of officers which included Indonesia as chairman, Cuba and Congo as vice chairs, and Syria as Rapporteur. Indonesia replaced St. Vincent and the Grenadines who chaired for the previous two years. Of the 28 members of the committee, nine are small island territories from the Caribbean and Asia/Pacific, and the chairmanship of the committee, up to this point, had rotated between the Caribbean during the 1990s and the Pacific in the new decade.

Another set of listed territories under review of the committee are those subject to sovereignty disputes. Gibraltar is claimed by U.K. and Spain, Falkland Islands/Malvinas is claimed by U.K. and Argentina, and Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco and the Frente Polasario. This might explain the formal presence of an interesting array of additional member countries which attended the event, including Argentina and Brazil which represent the strong Latin American position on the sovereignty of the Malvinas Islands. Spain, of course, was present as it is party to the disputed sovereignty with the U.K. over Gibraltar. The interest of other non- committee members such as Thailand, Turkey, Lebanon and Malaysia is less certain, and subject to interesting speculation.

An interesting diversion from previous practice occurred as the U.S. delegate sat in his designated committee seat as the administering power of the three territories under U.S. administration. The U.S. usually attends the meeting, but does not occupy their seat since they had formally withdrawn their cooperation with the Special Committee in the early 1990s. Perhaps they were seated in deference to the presence of the Secretary-General. Maybe it also signals that they may wish to resume formal cooperation with the committee. One can only hope.

Interestingly, the U.K. representative was present, but did not occupy the seat – which is normally what the U.S. has done over the years. The U.K. withdrew its formal cooperation from the committee in 1986. Meanwhile, France was seated in their proper place as the administering power of New Caledonia – they administer Tahiti and Wallis and Futuna in the Pacific, as well, but these territories are no longer on the U.N. list, so they dare not be mentioned in committee deliberations. In any case, SG Moon gave the usual SG statement referencing the historic background on the U.N. role in decolonisation, and calling on the Special Committee to “continue to advance the decolonisation process,” notwithstanding evidence of a decolonisation stalemate in the U.N. system which suggests little if any such advancement. The SG dutifully offered the full support of the U.N. to the process. The new Chairman, Ambassador Marty M. Natalegawa of Indonesia characterised decolonisation - as most chairs had done before him - as the “unfinished business of the United Nations,” and that the U.N. must “continue to give decolonisation a high priority,” even as the decolonisation process was termed “effectively stalled” in a 2007 report of the United Nations’ own Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS). The new chair should read the OIOS report closely, and review available independent analyses providing the rationale for why the process is “stalled,” as the time-worn excuse continues to be offered that non-cooperation by the administering powers has prevented the work from being done. To his credit, the new Chairman recalled the role of his country in promoting “independence from colonial rule” through the convening of the Bandung Conference in 1955 which “laid a new foundation for the cause of decolonisation across the globe.” Indeed, if the spirit of Bandung were still vivid, the decolonisation process would have been completed long ago. Introducing the Bandung principles into the discussion could only prove useful.

Among the obligatory statements of congratulation by several members of the committee, the presentations of the Caribbean countries of Dominica and St. Lucia were most substantive and forward-looking. Dominica Ambassador Crispin Gregoire emphasised that with only a few short years remaining until the end of the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, the decolonisation process must be stimulated since the process of review of the territories has been insufficient. He called for the implementation of the Plan of Implementation of the Decolonisation Mandate already endorsed by the General Assembly which included the use of important independent expertise to compensate for inadequate information available to the countries. He noted that the “repetition of process,” which finds little in-depth analysis of the situation in the territories, has not served the committee well. In order to remedy this inadequacy, and to give the process a chance to succeed, the Dominica ambassador proposed the establishment of a working group to review comprehensively the situation in the small territories. He expressed concern that the territories under sovereignty disputes could begin to overshadow the need for increased attention to be paid to the issues in the small territories.

The Minister Counselor of St. Lucia Michelle Joseph supported the Ambassador of Dominica in his proposal for the working group. She indicated that the committee had “arrived at a very important juncture in its history as the self-determination process in the territories appeared more difficult to achieve than ever.” This was due in large measure, she noted, to the insufficiency of “information dissemination to the people of the territories on their legitimate political options.” She went further to say that “the extent of information and analysis on the situation in the territories is not enough for the member states to offer any real solutions on moving the decolonisation process forward.” She pointed out that the U.N. Plan of Implementation which had called for independent studies and analyses on the evolution of self-government in each territory “has gone largely ignored,” along with the case-by-case work plan for each territory, and “the backlog of reports on the implementation of decolonisation resolutions mandated by the General Assembly each year.” She concluded that “significant progress can only be made through innovative measures, since it has become clear that the standard method of work has not yielded significant results.”

It is unclear whether these important proposals by the Caribbean governments will be acted upon. After all, these points have been forcefully made for years by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in statements to the General Assembly. In the face of what the Dominican ambassador described as an “often reluctant United Nations system,” the infamous ability of the bureaucracy to withstand any short-term pressure and return to “business as usual” is well known.

We shall see whether 2008 - under a new United Nations Secretary-General and a new Chairman of the Special Committee - proves any differently.


Tom Porter said...

A much welcomed addition to the dialogue on the remaining vestiges of colonialism.

Chris Burke said...

This is a great step in the right direction. How the UK is handling the Turks and Caicos Islands is illegal under the UN resolutions as well as the EU. Thank you for this report. I hope that the UN starts issuing sanctions and moves forward from merely meeting.