11 August 2008

UN Releases Report on Territories

The United Nations (UN) Special Committee on Decolonisation has issued its 2008 report following its two-week session to review the decolonisation process held last June. The report differs little in most sections from years past. It includes the decisions taken on a variety of subjects including dissemination of information on decolonisation, information transmitted to the UN on the territories by the administering powers, and the matter of sending UN missions to the territories to assess the situation first hand.

The report also includes decisions taken on Puerto Rico and the eleven Caribbean and Pacific small island territories, along with separate decisions on Tokelau, Falkland Islands (Malvinas), Gibraltar, New Caledonia and Western Sahara. Also included are the text of committee resolutions on UN assistance to the territories, economic and other activities affecting the territories, and implementation of the Decolonisation Declaration.(Note: The resolution on military activities that might impede the decolonisation declaration was phased out years ago as an eventual casuality of the thawing of the Cold War - even as the issue still applies in places like Guam, for example).

The 2008 Special Committee Report also makes reference to a number of procedural decisions of the committee including the confirmation of holding meetings away from UN Headquarters, limitation of documentation, cooperation of administering powers (only New Zealand, presently) with the UN’s decolonisation work, along with the mandate of the participation of the territorial governments in the work of the Special Committee. On the latter, only a few of the 16 remaining non self-governing territories participated in the work of the committee in 2008, including Gibraltar which ironically takes the most critical of positions on the legitimacy of the UN in regards to the decolonisation process.

Tokelau was the only territorial government to participate in the Pacific regional seminar held in Indonesia last May, along with a representative of Western Sahara. The findings of that regional seminar are annexed to the 2008 Special Committee report.

A longstanding impediment to the committee’s work is the failure to inform the territorial Governments in the Caribbean and Pacific as to when the committee is holding its sessions,and the fact that financial resources are in the committee budget for the travel of one government representative to the committee meeting. Perhaps if they knew when the meetings were being held, they might consider coming. As the thinking goes within an overly-cautious Special Committee bureacracy,however, the UN supposedly has no authority to communicate to the territories directly. Meanwhile, most territories are associate members in the UN regional economic commissions, and receive information from those secretariats. Many territories are associate members or observers to UN specialised agencies and receive direct information from those secretariats, as well. The territories receive direct invitations from the UN Secretary-General himself to participate as observers in UN world conferences and special sessions of the General Assembly to which they are often invited. These precedents do not appear to be sufficiently convincing.

The Special Committee Report of 2008 also makes reference to its “relations with UN bodies, intergovernmental and non governmental organisations.” Such “relations,” however, do not rise to the level of actual engagement with these other UN bodies in furtherance of the decolonisation process, even as the General Assembly in annual resolutions has directed the committee, to no avail, to develop cooperation with specific UN bodies.

One interesting committee recommendation is that the General Assembly “continue to invite the administering power to allow representatives of the Territories concerned to participate in the discussions in the (UN Fourth Committee) and in the Special Committee on the items related to their territory.”This is a rather disturbing contention since the right of the territories to participate in the work of the UN Decolonisation process has never been seen to be dependent on the good graces of a given administering power. The territorial participation in the work of the UN in decolonisation is by “acquired right,” under which several territories have participated in the committee’s work for over three decades. There have been several attempts by various administering powers over the years to prevent the views of the territorial government from being expressed, most recently at the Fourth Committee in 2006. Such censorship has always been rejected by the member States which have always recognised the "acquired right." This troubling inclusion of language in the report appearing to circumvent the right of the government of a territory to address the UN on its own decolonisation should have neven been allowed in the text, and should be removed.

The Report of the Decolonisation Committee which will be taken up by the UN Special Political and Decolonisation (Fourth) Committee in October is available in PDF format from Overseas Territories Review, and should be posted on the UN Decolonisation website in due course.