11 March 2008

Thoughts on Dependencies, Enclaves and Territorial Claims

In the classic 1982 work “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” the great West Indian thinker Dr. Walter Rodney examined the ramifications of Europe’s creation of artificial boundaries in Africa which contradicted the historical reality of the time. Had the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) not accepted the European-drawn borders after independence, perhaps many of the subsequent disputes between neighboring countries would not have arisen. This same strategy of colonial demarcation used in Africa was also responsible for the carving up of island groups in the Caribbean, Pacific and elsewhere. Such divisions were usually made irrespective of the local population, and often resulted in rather unusual political configurations. The northeastern Caribbean is one such example.

On the island of Sint Maarten, one side is part of the Netherlands Antilles which is an associated country of the Netherlands Kingdom (comprised of Holland, Netherlands Antilles and Aruba). The islands of Saba and St. Eustatius (part of the Netherlands Antilles) are closest to St. Maarten, and together with the more distant Curacao and Bonaire form the five-island Netherlands Antilles (which itself will fragment into five parts by the end of 2008). The other side of the island is French St. Martin which was historically governed by the French overseas department of Guadeloupe until it won separate commune status from Paris in 2007. St. Martin can now deal directly with France. Thus, we have one island with two countries, two different official languages, with separate currencies and nationalities.

Since the elected governments of the two sides of the island are not at equal political level, functional cooperation on cross-border issues is not an exact science. The elected leaders, to their credit, have established joint arrangements so they can coordinate what would otherwise be routine functional activities, if the countries were independent. If this scenario were not sufficiently complex, add to the mix the nearby island of Anguilla, a British dependent territory with its own governance structure, separate currency and official language (with and hourly ferry boat service to and from French St. Martin, weather permitting). The combined population of the three countries is under 100,000 with family ties between and among the three countries commonplace – as Europe underdeveloped Africa, so it apparently did to the Caribbean, as well.

This fragmentation of island peoples is also illustrated in the present division between the British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands. This configuration emerged from centuries of alternating control exercised by the British, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, French and even the Knights of Malta (among others). Ultimately the British ended up with one set of Virgins, and the Americans with the other set. In this case, the two territories use the same currency and have the same official language. The elected governments on both sides of their aquatic border (best identifiable via global positioning system) initiated discussions in the early 1990s on formal cooperation, including political confederation. No lasting alternative was achieved to the current political division between the two dependencies. They exist today under separate systems of government and differing perspectives on political evolution characterised by systematically increasing autonomy on the one side versus a drift towards partial integration with the US on the other side. Former Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Sir James Mitchell once remarked that “the safety of the haven of mediocrity is a foolish illusion.”
The British Virgin Islands and US Virgin Islands did enter into a bilateral cooperation agreement in 1990, updated by predecessor governments in 2004, designed to regularise official contacts on obvious issues of mutual interest. The sustainability of such arrangements is always questionable, and in the political vacuum, bilateral differences continue to reoccur unnecessarily.

Similar curious island divisions can be seen in the Pacific region. The Independent State of Samoa and American Samoa, for example, are comprised of people of the same culture and language, but which have been divided into one independent state and one dependent territory. The division between the US dependencies of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands is also of note given that the Chamorro people are native to both territories and comprise a single culture. But even as these two are neighboring US dependencies, their respective governance arrangements are markedly different. Guam is appropriately on the United Nation list of non self-governing territories while the Marianas maintains an internationally accepted autonomous status. Perhaps there may be a convergence of these dependency models in future, as the process of reversing the Marianas autonomy accelerates through unilateral US Congressional action designed to remove immigration control from Marianas jurisdiction, and the judicial determination to take away the territory’s ownership of its submerged land which it thought it had owned. Legislation to review the whole political arrangement amidst these new interpretations has been introduced in the Marianas legislative body.

Variations on this theme abound. They include the anachronistic remnants of ‘empire’ where 18th and 19th century economic exploitation (sugar, bananas, spices, enslaved and indentured people) has given way to 21st century strategic positioning for control over natural resources – particular energy resources - that can now be better exploited through new technologies. Thus, the United Kingdom insists on its sovereignty over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas even as its claim belies geography and demography, but is consistent with the contemporary colonial cartography. A war was even fought with Argentina in support of this claim. After all, an exclusive economic zone is at stake.

Spain maintains the Autonomous Community of the Canarie Islands off the coast of Morocco (much to their chagrin). Ownership of oil and gas deposits have been continuously contested in these waters. Morocco itself lays claim to Western Sahara, where a referendum process has been put on hold in favour of United Nations-sponsored negotiations between Morocco and the Frente Polisario. U.N. reports indicate that these discussions have resulted only in a “restatement of position” of the two parties. Serbia, in regards to Kosovo, can shed some light on what happens when negotiations result in such “restatements of position” – especially when energy resources are involved. Will there be a similarly imposed solution in Sahara without consensus of the Security Council?

There’s more. Despite United Nations resolutions to the contrary, the UK leased the Indian Ocean island of Chagos (Diego Garcia) to the US for use as a military base – even as the island is historically a part of Mauritius. The native population was tricked/forced/intimidated into boarding boats to leave their homeland, ostensibly for medical purposes, and then prohibited from returning. Even as the UK courts have sided with the right of the Chagos people to return, the ruling continues to be appealed by the British. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali may have been right that “the desired results (in international affairs) are often achieved by stealth.”

In the South China Sea, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim the Spratly Islands for strategic reasons as well as for the control of natural resources in that area. There are many other examples across the globe too numerous to describe in this present space. But a close examination of the world map would reveal a striking number of rocks, islets, cays and the like in the oceans and seas around the globe, with the telltale bracketed abbreviations of the names of the countries which have laid claim.

As the polar ice caps continue to melt at an ever-accelerating rate from the effects of climate change as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, new areas of territorial conquest are already beginning to emerge to ensure control over more of these resources to burn more fossil fuels. Thus, a new frontier has opened from the South Atlantic to Antarctica where the UK has used its sovereignty claim on Falklands/Malvinas as the basis for its argument to control large areas of Antarctica. Other seafaring developed states are also making territorial claims in that area.

As the water levels rise, what of the present islands which may quickly be inundated by the oceans and seas? Will claims be made to the resulting submerged land which was once above water? As Steele Pulse thoughtfully observed, “in these times of science and technology, the world is an unconscious lavatory.”