The United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on the final day of the 2008 Session ending in late July adopted its annual resolution on “Support to Non Self-Governing Territories by the Specialised Agencies and international organisations associated with the United Nations”– but not without the usual detractors.
The international mandate on assistance to the non self-governing territories from the UN system, as a means of advancing their progress towards full self-government, has provided these territories for decades with the opportunity to gain valuable experience through participation in international deliberations on relevant issues affecting them. If they are to assume the increasing responsibilities of full self-government, a role in the UN system makes perfect sense. This activity has been supported by longstanding resolutions of ECOSOC and the General Assembly. In June, the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation adopted its own annual resolution on the matter, along with a package of other resolutions addressing various aspects of the promotion of self-government.
The larger countries which administer territories, and a few other developed countries, continue to express misgivings by abstaining on the vote on the ECOSOC resolution on support to the territories, even as they have supported over the years the participation of these territories in UN activities through other UN votes. In recent years, a number of these countries have based their objection on the contention that that the rules of procedure governing the specific UN bodies should be respected. The reality is that the rules of many of these UN organisations have always been respected, since provisions for the participation of territories have been put in place with the concurrence of these same administering countries.
Examples include resolutions providing for the participation of these territories in the UN world conferences from 1992 through 2005, as well as provisions for associate membership or observer status in a number of UN specialised agencies. Why, then, this emphasis on the respect for rules of procedure, if they are already being respected?
In the 2008 ECOSOC session, the rationale for abstaining on the resolution came from the usual groups of countries, particularly the European Union (EU), the United States, Japan - and even the Russian Federation. The EU position on the issue is rather puzzling since France and the United Kingdom administer a considerable number of the remaining non self-governing territories, most of which are the beneficiaries of support from a variety of UN organisations including UNESCO, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the regional economic commissions among other UN bodies. EU-administered territories have also benefitted from participation in UN world conferences on environment, sustainable development, and small island developing states among others – consistent with the rules of procedure adopted by the UN with administering power concurrence.
Yet, speaking before the vote on behalf of the EU, France contended that “the subject in the resolution does not fall within the competence of ECOSOC.” But, since ECOSOC is the main UN body devoted to economic and social matters, and since the resolution addresses economic and social development assistance, how can the resolution be regarded as outside the competence of ECOSOC?
The US representative at the meeting expressed its own version of the issue. The US “agreed, in principle, that UN funds, programmes and specialised agencies can usefully provide support to territories that are not UN members, so long as the domestic laws and policies of a territory's administering power allow such UN support.” This is a statement of the obvious since the rules of the UN bodies require any request for territorial participation to be agreed by the administering country. So far, so good.
However, the US representative went on to “object to provisions in the resolution” that they somehow perceive to be an interference in the power of the administering country to decide “the nature, if any,” of territorial participation in UN programmes and activities. Since it is long established that the participation must be agreed by the administering powers, where’s the issue? The further contention that the prevailing arrangements for the US control of foreign affairs of the territories “has been accepted by the territories” belies the fact that the US territories have neither accepted not rejected their present status as non self-governing territories in the absence of a legitimate process of self-determination.
There are also numerous cases where the territories have not “accepted” such arrangements, after having been denied administering power approval to join such international bodies as the World Tourism Organisation, the Caribbean Community, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, the Association of Caribbean States or the Pacific Islands Forum, among others. Most recently, the Governor of American Samoa, for example, has objected to the lack of US concurrence for the territory to join the Pacific Islands Forum, whilst various US Virgin Islands governments have similarly objected to the obstacles placed in the way to gain permission to seek participation in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and other regional bodies. Similar blocking of Puerto Rico’s interest in engaging various Latin American and other international institutions is legendary.
The further contention that the ECOSOC resolution somehow “infringe(s) upon the relations between the U.S. federal government and the governments of its territories, as well as upon the internal constitutional arrangements of the United States” is unnecessarily alarmist, and only serves to re-state administering power unilateral authority over the territory. This argument is made even in the face of the existence and maintenance of all of the controls over the dependency. These annual re-statements of position by member states, deviating little from previous years, are in dire need of updating and substantive correction.
One administering power, the Pacific state of New Zealand which administers Tokelau in the Pacific, spoke in favour of the resolution and made note of the longstanding support historically provided by UNDP and other UN bodies in their socio-economic and constitutional evolution of that territory. Bolivia, Cuba and Syria also spoke in favour of the resolution which had over 20 co-sponsors.
The Russian Federation, on the other hand, made an extraordinary proposal to remove from the ECOSOC agenda what it termed the “political item” of support to the territories. No such proposal was made to remove other items with a far higher degree of political implication, such as the one on “economic and social repercussions of the Israeli occupation on the living conditions of the Palestinian people.” In reality, there is equal merit for both items to remain on the ECOSOC agenda, and the Russian position favouring one, but not the other, might be reconsidered using the same principle applied to its veto of the Zimbabwe sanctions resolution (along with China) in the UN Security Council a month ago. All of these issues are but variations on the contemporary colonial/post colonial dynamic requiring the support of the UN and its member states.
Information Lacking on UN Support
Through it all, the dearth of information on the actual support to the territories continues to limit the awareness of the governments on the role of the UN bodies reflecting in the statements in the general discussion. According to the ECOSOC resolutions on the matter, the UN Secretary-General provides a report on the implementation of support to the territories each year. Rather than an annual substantive analysis of UN support by the UN Secretariat, the Secretary-General sends a request for information to the various UN and other international bodies for information on their assistance programmes. A compilation of the replies to this request constitute the content of the report on implementation. The trouble is that only a small fraction of the UN bodies actually reply. This makes for a largely incomplete report, even devoid of information from agencies which have continued to provide assistance to the territories for years. There was no UNDP reply this year, even as that Programme is the main provider of UN assistance to the territories. There was no ECLAC reply, even as the Caribbean territories are integrated into their programmes and activities (with longstanding administering power concurrence), and even as the substantive research on the issue has been conducted in that commission. There is no reply from the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) which similarly integrates territories into their work programme.
Such an incomplete substantive Secretary General’s Report tends to reinforce the faulty assumption that the UN agencies are somehow resistant to providing support to the territories. The reality is that the territories participate in a wide array of UN programmes and activities. Apart from the insufficiency of replies, the information is available on the websites of these agencies. Those who prepare the Secretary-General’s Report on the issue could do more in-depth research, rather than rely on the fraction of replies from a few agencies.
The overall issue of participation of the territories in the UN system was the subject of a comprehensive study undertaken for the ECLAC entitled “Further Integration of Associate Members in the United Nations System,” and published in December, 2007. The study is regarded as the most comprehensive examination to date on the subject. This study could have been made a document for consideration of the members of ECOSOC this year to provide insight on the nature, extent and challenges of participation of the territories in the UN system. At the least, the study could have been referenced in the 2008 ECOSOC resolution. Ironically, the very research study which would have shed considerable light on the nature and scope of territorial participation in the wider UN system was not made available to ECOSOC or to the General Assembly. Perhaps the update to the study could be included in the official ECOSOC documentation for 2009, but only if a member state so requests. In any case, without a more comprehensive picture of the level of territorial participation in the UN system, the UN’s 2009 consideration of this issue promises to be “déjà vu all over again,” with the same re-statements from the same countries, with the same language in the resolution and the same limited information in the Secretary-General’s report. This does little to further the development process of the territories for which this exercise is designed to assist.
Hidden within this repetitiveness are significant omissions and deletions of important text from the ECOSOC resolution. One such omission was the reference to the 2004 ECLAC decision to examine possible territorial participation in technical programmes of ECOSOC, in areas such as statistics and sustainable development. Both ECLAC resolutions were referenced several years ago. Amazingly, reference to a virtually identical 1998 resolution was retained by ECOSOC, even as it is standard UN practice that older references are deleted in favour of newer ones.
In the final analysis, the die was cast at the outset of the 2008 ECOSOC discussion when the acting chairman announced that the resolution had "no programme budgetary implications.” If a resolution that is to provide support to the territories has no budgetary implications, then the territories are wondering what kind of support is being considered.
Conclusions of Decolonisation Committee
Aside from the companion resolution on UN assistance, the Decolonisation Committee one month earlier adopted its usual number of resolutions on political, constitutional and socio-economic development of the territories. Of particular note is the consolidated resolution with recommendations on the decolonisation and self-determination process of eleven small island territories, mostly in the Caribbean and Pacific. A bit of political sleight-of-hand is reflected in the subtle changes introduced, and subsequently agreed by the member governments. Several are noteworthy.
First, reference to the 2001 World Conference against Racism (WCAR) was removed from a footnote, as it was no longer deemed relevant to the paragraph. Never mind that the paragraph referenced “all UN world conferences in the economic and social sphere” in which the territories were eligible to participate, including the WCAR. Could this deletion have been a concession to those countries which disassociated from the conclusions of the racism conference, even as the rationale for that action was questionable?
Other issues conspicuously absent from the resolution include the concerns repeatedly expressed by the representatives of the territories at the regional seminars on decolonisation over the unilateral authority of the administering powers to legislate for the territories without their consent, and often against their will. A number of other key issues contained in the reports of these seminars are also never reflected in the resolution.
There was also no reference to the decision of the May, 2008 UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to hold an expert seminar on decolonisation, and the invitation for the Decolonisation Committee to participate in it. In fact, the UN resolution has repeated for years the request that the Decolonisation Committee develop a working relationship with both the Permanent Forum, as well as with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), but no action to date has been taken to develop such a natural linkage. Interestingly, the CERD has to write each year in its annual report, rather embarrassingly, that it cannot obtain from the Decolonisation Committee the requested information on racism issues in the territories.
On the sections of the resolution addressing the individual territories, a number of changes were made, with several most noteworthy. On American Samoa, reference was inexplicably deleted from the previous year to the request by the territory’s non-voting Congressional delegate requesting US clarification on the role of the UN in the political status development of the US territories. Rather than delete the language, it would have been better to add the rather interesting and widely reported US response to the delegate’s query.
On Anguilla, references were properly added to the fact that the territory’s new position was to seek full internal self-government. Regarding the British Virgin Islands, reference was also added which took note of the new constitution, but the revisions to the constitutional proposals in the Cayman Islands were not reflected.
In the case of Guam, despite impassioned pleas for UN review of the ongoing militarisation of the territory made by representatives of native Chamorro organisations at the 2008 decolonisation seminar and at its annual session in New York, the resolution only expressed the committee’s awareness “of deep concerns by civil society and others regarding the potential social and other impacts” of the situation.
Finally, on the US Virgin Islands, reference was made to the establishment of a constitutional convention, but nothing was said about the decline of the territory’s request for assistance from its administering power to conduct its public education programme on the constitution. Also, all reference was removed to the longstanding request of the territory for the delegation of authority to seek formal status with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, and the Association of Caribbean States. It would have been better to have added language on why the requests by successive territorial governments were either denied or ignored over the years.
A second key resolution adopted by the Decolonisation Committee renews the committee mandate each year, and had only cosmetic updates. Interestingly, this resolution contains a number of activities which are agreed by the governments year after year, but never implemented. These include reports on the implementation of such mandated activities as a constructive programme of work on a case-by-case basis for each territory, and the plan of action for the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. Yet, these two initiatives are cited in the resolution as “an important legislative authority for the attainment of self-government by the Non-Self-Governing Territories.” Deleted from the same resolution several years ago was the important third component, the Plan of Implementation (POI) of the Decolonisation Mandate, which provided the mechanism for the UN system to actually carry out its responsibility. Without the POI, everything else is just re statement of principles. It is rather like “spinning a top in mud.”
The United Nations is to be commended for its excellent work in a wide array of substantive areas in many parts of the world. It is inconsistent with the UN's demonstrated excellence that the necessary political will among the governments, and the substantive support necessary to carry out the activities approved by these very same governments, remains insufficient to implement the self-determination mandate only two years before the end of the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. The contemporary self-determination process for the remaining territories must re-emerge as a significant political issue warranting the required degree of UN attention, human and financial resources if the mandate of the UN Charter is to be realised.