13 June 2010

UN Decolonisation Committee Faces Serious Issues

The United Nations (UN) Special Committee on Decolonisation begins its 2010 session on 14th June as it continues its review of the remaining sixteen territories formally listed by the UN as non self-governing. The session follows on from the annual Pacific seminar which convened in Noumea, New Caledonia last May, and which heard analyses from representatives from territorial governments, experts and non-governmental organisations on the political, constitutional and economic developments in the territories. An expert presentation was made at the session on the implementation of the International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism as it comes to a close at the end of 2010.

Public Information on Decolonisation

The Special Committee will have to grapple with a number of critical issues that continue to delay the realisation of the decolonisation process. During the first week, the committee will hear from UN officials about their activities in disseminating information on decolonisation. Most territories have consistently asserted that such dissemination has largely been ineffective, especially as it relates to information on the legitimate political status options available to them. The UN has countered that the website provides important information on decolonisation.

Political Education Programmes

UN resolutions over the last two decades have called for political education programmes to heighten the awareness of the people on the options, but few such programmes have ever been undertaken. A notable exception was the assistance provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Electoral Affairs Unit in relation to Tokelau. The fact that New Zealand, as the territory’s administering power, has cooperated fully with the relevant UN offices on the information programmes makes all the difference. Such a UN role in public information and education has been rejected by other administering powers, however. The Special Committee will, therefore, have to assess the actual effectiveness of existing information dissemination, and devise solutions to correct any deficiencies. The Committee should also consider innovative strategies to disseminate information to the peoples of the territories on their legitimate political status options through information campaigns in view of the general reluctance of most administering Powers to work with the UN on such programmes.

Visiting Missions/Regional Seminars

Relatedly, the Special Committee will also have to deal with the difficulties in conducting its important visiting missions to the territories to assess first-hand the situation on the ground in the territories concerned. For their part, France agreed to the convening of the 2010 UN decolonisation seminar in New Caledonia, but this was only the second time since the seminars began in 1990 that a territory was permitted to host the annual dialogue (the 2003 seminar being held in United Kingdom – administered Anguilla). For its part, the UK concurred with special visiting missions to Bermuda in 2005 and to the Turks & Caicos Islands in 2006, whilst New Zealand worked closely with the Special Committee visiting mision to Tokelau in 2006. The US, on the other hand, has not consented to a UN visiting mission since the 1970s, rejecting formal requests to this effect by the Guam and US Virgin Islands governments during the 1980s and 1990s.

Review of Caribbean Territories

The Special Committee will also have to examine developments in the eleven small territories whose issues have been grouped into one long resolution of eleven parts (as opposed to the previous eleven separate resolutions). In the Caribbean, the operation of new dependency constitutions in the British Virgin Islands and in the Cayman Islands, respectively, providing new delegated authority should be examined, along with the status of constitutional and political advancement in Montserrat and Anguilla whose constitutional reviews have yielded proposals for full internal self-government – a political status which the former UK Labour Party government rejected as “not on offer.” Accordingly, the Committee might assess whether the new United Kingdom Government will maintain the Labour Party government position of rejecting the political status option of free association.

Of particular focus of the Special Committee should be the suspension of the 2006 constitution in the Turks and Caicos Islands which abolished the elected government transferring all of its authority to the UK – appointed Governor pending an ongoing investigation (funded from the territorial treasury) of several former political leaders. This has resulted in ongoing development projects brought to a halt with significantly increased unemployment, a rise in crime and the territory’s economy at a virtual standstill. The urgency of returning the Turks & Caicos Islands to elected government should be high on the agenda of the Special Committee, while concerns should be raised at the UK appointment of a constitutional advisor responsible for writing a new, less autonomous, constitution for the territory which would be less far less autonomous than the one successfully negotiated by the ousted elected government. The fact that the people of the territory would not be in a position to agree or reject such a revised constitution should raise a red flag in the Special Committee.

Also in the Caribbean, the US response to the proposed constitution of the US Virgin Islands should be closely reviewed by the Committee, along with the territorial Constitutional Convention’s rationale for the inclusion of various provisions in the document to protect the interests of the people. The views of the administering power as expressed in the US Congressional committee hearings held last May on the proposed constitution should also be carefully examined. In this case, the Special Committee should be apprised during its session that a number of key provisions in the proposed constitution rely on resolutions of the General Assembly, most notedly, those which guarantee the ownership, control and disposal of natural resources, including marine resources. Since the administering power has questioned the ‘constitutionality’ of the territory’s claims right to its natural resources, among other areas, the Special Committee should seek to address the fundamental question of the relevancy of international principles vis a vis the unilateral authority of the administering power to legislate for the territory without their consent, and often against their will.

Whilst not formally listed by the UN, Puerto Rico is annually reviewed by the Special Committee, and conducts hearings top listen to speakers from all sides of the political spectrum – as it does in the case of the listed territories. The Special Committee should be made aware of the recent US Congressional hearings held last May which have resulted in a request by the US Congress for clarification from the White House on the legitimacy of more autonomy within the present commonwealth status. The previous US administration had rejected further autonomy as inconsistent with the dependency arrangement. The Special Committee should also review whether there has been any action on its repeated recommendations to the General Assembly that it take up the issue of Puerto Rico.

Review of Pacific Territories

The Special Committee should also have before it to examine issues affecting the decolonisation process in the Pacific where the level of intensity is even greater than that in the Caribbean. Thus, the Special Committee should examine the outcome of the previous internal political status deliberations in American Samoa, and review the issues to be included in the territory’s constitutional convention which will convene at the end of June. The Special Committee should also carefully assess the position of the territory’s elected governor who has called for more autonomy in a future relationship with the United States that would shield the territory from the unilateral applicability of the laws of the administering power in such areas as the retention of the ownership of land and other traditional powers which may be challenged on the basis of how the US constitution and laws are unilaterally applied.

In the case of Guam, the Special Committee should be further updated on the status of militarisation underway, and the attendant social, environmental and political impact expected. The Committee has been especially cautious – perhaps overly-cautions - in its recommendations on this issue even as a number of civil society organisations have consistently provided information to the committee on the present and expected effects of further militarization, most recently at the seminar in New Caledonia. The last time that the Special Committee adopted a decision on “Military Activities and Arrangements by Colonial Powers in Territories under their administration” was 2002, whilst the UN’s agenda item of the same name was quietly phased out in the 1990s. Given that miliarisation of the territories is on the increase, it might behoove the General Assembly to reconsider such a decision and assign the item to the Special Committee. Alternatively, perhaps the item can be considered in the General Assembly's First Committee which deals with disarmament issues, although it is highly unlikely that such a proposal would even be raised, let alone adopted.

The situation in New Caledonia should also be carefully analysed by the Special Committee to assess progress in the implementation of the Noumea Accord which provides for a systematic – and irreversible - transfer of power from France to the territorial government in advance of an agreed referendum on independence. The sustainability of the commitment to the referendum might be an important area of review by the committee, along with the French policy of designating the territory as its major base of military presence in the Pacific region. The formalization of French-Australian defence cooperation via New Caledonia should also be noted. The potential influence of the enhanced military presence on the proposed referendum in New Caledonia should be an important consideration of the Special Committee during its 2010 session.

Sovereignty Disputed Territories (SDTs)

The Special Committee should also be updated on circumstances in the non self-governing territories which are under sovereignty dispute, namely Falkland Islands (Malvinas), Gibraltar and Western Sahara. The question of which takes precedence in these cases - the self-determination of the people or the sovereignty dispute – remains very much unanswered. In recent years, distinctions have been increasingly made in resolutions of the UN General Assembly qualifying the rights of the people to only those territories which are not subject to sovereignty disputes, mainly aimed at Falkland Islands (Malvinas), but also impacting the other two Sovereignty Disputed Territories (SDTs) as well. Just who constitutes the people of the SDTs – the descendants of an indigenous population which may have been displaced, or the settlers who originated in countries where the right to self-determination has already been exercised, remains very much an open question. This question also extends to most of the small island territories, as well, as methods to dilute the electoral franchise to include ‘non-belonger’ residents in the UK administered territories is being introduced in the context of the constitutional crisis in the Turks & Caicos Islands. This is being seen as an effort to dilute the electorate as the people of the territories would lose their ability of political self-identification.

Development Issues

The Special Committee will also have before it specific agenda items on assistance to the territories from the UN system; and on economic and other activities which affect the interests of the peoples of the non self-governing territories. That resolutions on both items have historically been adopted with very little, if any, discussion, is highly unfortunate. In the case UN assistance to the territories, it has been proven that the capacity of the territories to assume more powers of self-government has been significantly enhanced by their access to socio-economic, technical and other programmes of the United Nations. Curiously, the agencies are largely un-represented at the Special Committee sessions when the issue of their assistance to the territories is on the agenda. It has also been made clear that the economic advancement of the territories is an important contributor to the ability of the territory to move towards greater self-government.

Future Implementation of the Decolonisation Mandate

But perhaps the most important issue in the 2010 session of the Special Committee should be the recommendation it sends to the General Assembly to create a new decade to re-generate the momentum necessary in the international community towards a genuine self-determination process leading to actual decolonisation.

According to the "Analysis of Implementation of the United Nations Decolonisation Mandate during the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (2001-2010) and Future Strategies for Completion" presented at the 2010 decolonisation seminar by governance expert Dr. Carlyle Corbin, some increased attention has been paid by the international community to the “necessity of implementation” of the decolonisation mandate resulting in “action oriented” resolutions adopted by the General Assembly.

But Corbin, who represented the Government of the US Virgin Islands before the Special Committee on Decolonisation for over twenty years, emphasised in his analysis that, “the success of the second international decade had been significantly impeded by the insufficiency of actual implementation where initiatives proposed have not become initiatives completed.” As Corbin observed in the paper, “the major administering powers appear to dismiss the important actions agreed by the international community,” and often “seek to portray colonial reform initiatives (such as internal reviews of territorial constitutions) as examples of decolonisation.”

The issue of implementation of the existing decolonisation mandate remains the best way forward, but this can only be accomplished if the parties concerned, primarily the administering powers and the United Nations system - live up to their international responsibilities as set forth in the United Nations Charter, General Assembly and Economic and Special Council resolutions, and international conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The decisions taken at the 2010 session of the Special Committee on Decolonisation will, in large measure, set the stage for the United Nations to either advance the decolonisation process in future, or to maintain a repetition of process which has seen the disappointing result of only two territories in twenty years achieving a full measure of self-government.

The Special Committee on Decolonisation at its 2010 session has a most formidable task ahead if it makes the tough choice to engage in a constructive dialogue on the true essence of the decolonisation dilemma.