07 October 2008

UN General Assembly Begins Review of Territories - An Analysis

On 6th October 2008, the United Nations (UN) Special Political and Decolonisation Committee - a committee of the whole of the UN General Assembly - began its annual consideration of the political, socio-economic and constitutional developments in the remaining non self-governing territories on 6th October 2008.

The discussions center on the sixteen remaining territories formally listed by the UN as non self-governing. These include the Caribbean and Pacific small island territories of Bermuda, Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the US Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico is not formally listed, but the Special Committee of 24 on Decolonisation conducts several days of hearings each summer on the decolonisation of Puerto Rico and adopts a resolution related to its self-determination process. Since 2007, the Committee of 24 has requested that the General Assembly itself consider the decolonisation of Puerto Rico.

The General Assembly also is reviewing the listed Pacific territories of American Samoa, Guam, New Caledonia, Tokelau and Pitcairn, as well as St. Helena. Other territories under consideration are those which are the subject of sovereignty disputes, namely the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), Gibraltar, and Western Sahara.

The Fourth Committee had earlier held its first organisational session on 2nd October under the leadership of its chairman Jorge Arguello (Argentina), and introduced the other members of the bureau: Vice Chairs Amr Elsherbini (Egypt), Alexandru Cujbi (Moldova), Elmer Cato (Philippines), and Committee Rapporteur Paula Parviainen (Finland).

Participation of Territories in UN Debate

It was announced at the organisational session that some 71 requests had been received thus far from representatives of non-governmental organisations and individuals to address the Fourth Committee on developments in Gibraltar, Guam, New Caledonia, the US Virgin Islands and Western Sahara. It was also announced that the Chief Minister of Gibraltar would make a statement, the only government representative from any of the territories expected to appear.

Increasing the participation of the territorial governments, in particular, at the Fourth Committee has always been a formidable challenge. First, the UN does not advise the territorial governments when the meetings are being held, and many are not aware of the provisions for territorial governments to address the relevant UN committees regarding the nature, scope and extent (if any) of their own process of political development. In some cases over the years, some territories have been sternly dissuaded by their administering powers from appearing at UN Headquarters to address the relevant UN bodies. But who best to provide first-hand information than the representatives of the territories themselves? The UN has provided the political space for their input, but this can only have meaning if their participation is facilitated. In reply to a question as to whether territorial governments should be permitted to address the UN or not, one former Caribbean territorial minister replied, “If not us, then who?”

US-administered territories

Since the 1970s, successive governments of the US Virgin Islands had led the way in sending a representative, at ministerial level, to address both the Committee of 24 and the Fourth Committee, and from 1990 through 2006, at to provide information to the annual UN regional decolonisation seminars. This involvement appears to have ended with the last presentation to the UN by that territory delivered to the Fourth Committee in October, 2006. In the 1990s successive governments of Guam also presented information before the relevant UN committees and UN decolonisation seminars, providing first hand knowledge of the developments in that territory. The participation of the Guam government, however, also appears to have ceased as no governmental statement has been presented for a number of years.

The earlier substantive participation of these two territorial governments is reflected in the depth of the resolutions which were adopted on these territories during that period. But without this direct information and perspective from these governments, the UN resolutions specifically related to these territories have become repetitive, and often outdated. Additionally, important recommendations have been quietly deleted from the resolutions, even as the UN member States are not advised as to whether the actions called for have been carried out. Territorial governments are usually unaware of such sleight-of-hand maneuverings.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations have stepped up to fill the void by making presentations to the UN. The United Nations Association of the Virgin Islands has consistently participated in the regional seminars and at the UN hearings in New York, most recently at the Special Committee in 2008. Representatives of the Chamoru Nation, the Guahan Indigenous Collective and the Guam Famoksaiyan Collective are scheduled to address the Fourth Committee on 7th October on the question of Guam. This steady Guam civil society participation adds to the groundbreaking role played for decades by the Organisation of People for Indigenous Rights (OPIR) which had consistently presented critical information to the world body at UN headquarters, and continues to provide important information at the decolonisation seminars.

UK – Administered Territories

In the case of the British-administered territories, the elected governments generally have not participated in the UN review process at UN headquarters, with the notable exception of the Chief Minister of Gibraltar whose statements to the world body have focused on justifying the dependency relationship, while simultaneously lambasting the UN for what he considers its outdated definition of what constitutes colonialism. The Gibraltar Opposition leader also addresses the UN, and provides balance to what some consider an extremist government position. Other territories, however, are not as comfortable as the Gibraltar government appears to be in relation to the unilateral authority which characterizes the dependency models. It does not appear that they necessarily subscribe to the "colonialism by consent" arguments, as they seek to gain as much autonomy as possible within the confines of the present dependency arrangements, especially given that substantive autonomy is “not on offer.” Their absence from the UN proceedings, often because of misperceptions of the role of the UN in their decolonisation process, fuels the argument that they are pleased with the status quo dependency arrangements. The UN, in turn, is deprived of a real discussion on the nuances of the contemporary colonial dynamic.

Quite apart from the absence of engagement by the territorial governments at the UN decolonisation review in New York, the British-administered territories have participated more consistently in the decolonisation regional seminars. This was highlighted by the high level presence at the 2003 Caribbean Regional Seminar on Decolonisation which convened in Anguilla. During that session, discussions were held between with the elected heads of government of Anguilla, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands and Montserrat, along with high level officials of the other territories in the region. A most significant expert presentation at that seminar was on the legitimacy of the political status of free association as an alternative to continued dependency and immediate independence. The association models of Cook Islands and Niue with New Zealand; the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau with the United States; and the earlier West Indies Associated state model with the United Kingdom were outlined and discussed at length.

At that seminar, the applicability of free association as a viable political model was confirmed by all of the conference participants, including the representatives of the administering powers in attendance. Upon reflection, however, the British later announced that they no longer offered free association to the territories under its administration, nor did they offer political integration. Thus, present discussions between the territories and the UK on constitutional reform are confined to the extent to which some powers can be delegated from an un-elected governor to the elected government and a move towards democratic governance.


These are but some of the salient issues on the ground affecting the political future of the people of the territories. The method of work of the UN bodies dealing with decolonisation, however, continues to impede even a cursory examination of these issues. The annual routine employed by the UN in addressing the complexities of contemporary decolonisation is in dire need of re-structuring, with the aim of providing for a real dialogue and expert examination of the democratic deficiencies which characterise the prevailing dependency arrangements, and the legitimate political options that the international community has agreed are to be made available to the territories.

In short, the dialogue must be on the extent of implementation of those things which the UN has long agreed to do, but has not yet mustered the political will toensure that they are completed. When it comes to decolonisation, it seems that the attention span of the UN system is limited to the adoption of resolutions without regard for whether they are carried out. The resolutions require an annual report on implementation - a report which has never been seen. A real “Report on the implementation of decolonisation resolutions since the first International Decade of Colonialism” would be a good place to start.


Anonymous said...

Puerto Rico was taken out of the territorial (non self governing) in 1953 by a General Assembly vote resolution 748.
Puerto Rico is self governing but it's decolonization process has not been completed according to those who want a G.A. review of Puerto Rico's case.

Fred Radewagen said...

As usual, a thoughtful and useful analysis.

Denny Yomaki said...

What about West Papua's case? It was know as Netherlands New Guinea. Under d UN supervision, West Papuans were handpicked by the Indonesian n force to vote for Indonesia or die, same experience repeated in Timor Leste. When can the UN n International Community open the eyes and DO SOMETHING for WEST PAPUA? In this world, there are more than 16 listed territories still colonised or considered as non-self governing territories.