05 October 2009

UN Fourth Committee Meets on Decolonization

The United Nations (UN) Fourth Committee convened its 2009 session in New York on 5th October. Decolonization is its first item on the agenda of the Committee which is comprised of all 192 UN member states. At the first meeting, statements were made by various member states in their national capacity and on behalf of the respective regional groups.

Various perspectives on the self-determination and decolonization process were to expressed. Non governmental organizations, officials, experts, indigenous peoples groups and private citizens will address the Committee on 6-7 October. Unfortunately, territorial government officials – especially the small island territories - have been all too often absent from the process in recent years, either because of lack of awareness that the UN is meeting to discuss them, or because they are dissuaded from participating by mis-information that the UN is not relevant to their political development process. Either way, their perspective is sorely missed, and gives the impression that the territories are not concerned about their political development. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Representatives of many of the UN member states will also present statements in their national capacity or on behalf of their respective regional groups. Most of the statements from member states reiterate support for the principles of self-determination and decolonization, and call on the UN and the administering powers – those nations which administer territories – to carry out their obligations to decolonize the territories based on the UN Charter and relevant UN resolutions.

On the other hand, the tact taken at the Fourth Committee by the administering powers has been to either attempt to justify their colonial stewardship in their statements (as in the case of the United Kingdom), or pretend that the agenda item does not exist and make no statement at all (as in the case of France and United States).

By the end of the debate at week’s end, the eight resolutions forwarded to the 192-member Fourth Committee by the Special Committee of 24 will be ultimately adopted based on a familiar voting pattern. There are upwards of 90 non UN-member speakers, the overwhelming majority on the issue of Western Sahara, along with several on the US Virgin Islands, Guam and New Caledonia. Since the content of the resolutions before the Fourth Committee are hopelessly repetitious, it is unsurprising that the voting pattern would be the same.

The draft resolutions before the Fourth Committee, as in years past, focus on a range of issues affecting the decolonization process including implementation of the Decolonization Declaration, economic and other activities affecting the interests of the people of the territories, dissemination of information on decolonization, information from non self-governing territories and assistance to the territories from the wider UN system. Separate resolutions adopted by the Committee of 24 on individual territories will also be reviewed and adopted by the Fourth Committee covering New Caledonia, Tokelau and Falkland Islands (Malvinas).

The Committee of 24 also annually addresses the territories of Gibraltar and Western Sahara, making no recommendations on them, leaving the task to the Fourth Committee to consider, and to adopt respective resolutions The opposition leader of Gibraltar is scheduled to speak. The real question is whether it is self-determination of the people in the territory, or the sovereignty dispute between the respective parties, that takes precedence. This is applicable to territories such as Gibraltar, Western Sahara and Falkland Islands (Malvinas).

Of course, there is the question of who constitutes ‘the people.’ Is the indigenous population who may have been forcibly relocated from their homeland considered ‘the people,’ or does this also (or instead) apply to the settlers and their descendants who may have replaced the indigenous population, or diluted their numbers? This is one of the arguments in relation to Falklands Islands/Malvinas, and an issue which has also complicated the situation in Western Sahara in relation to the inability to register ‘eligible’ voters for the long-postponed referendum, even as the International Court of Justice made a ruling on the issue in 1975.

An important resolution before the Fourth Committee is the ‘consolidated’ text which groups eleven small territories into one long resolution. This is contrasted with the eleven separate shorter resolutions which prevailed until the beginning of the 1990s in the immediate post - Cold War United Nations reform when decolonization was almost ‘reformed’ totally off the UN agenda. The consolidated resolution, thus, covers American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Guam, Montserrat, St. Helena, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. It has long since been forgotten as to why these particular territories are grouped together in one resolution while others have their own separate resolutions.

The Committee of 24 also adopts a resolution on Puerto Rico each year. That territory is not formally on the UN list, but its non self-governing nature demands that it be discussed at the Committee of 24. It helps that Puerto Rico has some 4 million people with a politically astute populace, and vocal and highly organized political parties where options on political status are the basis of partisan affiliation. Inexplicably, the resolution adopted on Puerto Rico by the Committee of 24 is not forwarded to the Fourth Committee for adoption – even as the resolution itself “requests the General Assembly to consider the question of Puerto Rico in all its aspects.”

On the other hand, the ‘consolidated resolution’ of non self-governing territories that is forwarded to the Fourth Committee includes a general section with recommendations applicable to all the eleven territories. This is followed by individual sections on each territory. Both the general and individual sections are carefully drafted to refrain from the inclusion of any information to which the administering powers might object – after all, it is consensus adoption (without a vote) that is the most important result of this process, as opposed to the sufficiency of substance or the implementation of any of the recommendations.

There are also resolutions which routinely are voted upon, and it is unclear why some countries habitually vote against such issues as assistance to the territories from the UN system, or economic activities which might impede the decolonization process.

Theoretically, amendments can be offered to some resolutions in order to provide updates on new developments, but this is rarely done, and only if all member states agree beforehand, resulting in weak amendments. The resolutions in the Committee of 24 are dutifully adopted with little or no discussion from year to year, with the only change being that of the dates in the text (this serves to ‘update’ the resolution). This mind-numbing process reflects the over-emphasis on achieving consensus, almost at any cost – that is, the lowest common denominator. Thus, if the text of the resolution is adopted one year, it is easier to adopt the same text the next year (and the next year, and the next, and on, and on, and… like that…). Implementation of any of the resolutions, from year to year, doesn’t appear to be a consideration.

It is all reminiscent of the film “Groundhog Day” where each day is repeated, ad infinitum. In this case, the session ends with the adoption of the resolutions by the UN General Assembly in December, and the following January represents a new beginning as an exact repetition of the previous year (sort of a Star Trek Next Generation time loop). So it goes.

As the President of the 63rd Session of the UN General Assembly Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann said in his final statement in September, “the time of reform of the UN has passed,” and the institution needs to be “re-invented.” OTR fully endorses this view, especially as it relates to decolonization, and we have consistently expanded on this perspective over the last decade. Readers can research our archives under ‘decolonisation’ or ‘decolonization’ (depending on your preferred grammatical usage).

Since the UN process remains the same, any OTR analysis already included in our archives would explain the situation. Pick a year. We certainly do not wish to repeat ourselves.

As it has been written in regards to other issues in the international arena, how the United Nations deals with decolonization has become “a sterile exercise, a game of pretense played to avoid what is meant to be achieved." Nevertheless, OTR will cover the 2009 session of the Fourth Committee, not because we harbor any illusions that the process will change, but rather because our readership demands to be kept abreast.