20 June 2012

Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice establishes international law as basis of the self determination process in Guahan (Guam)

to the 


United Nations Headquarters
New York, N.Y.



JUNE 20, 2012

Hafa Adai and greetings from Guam Your Excellency Mr. Chairman Diego Morejón Pazmino and distinguished members of the Special Committee on Decolonization. Thank you for the opportunity to share with this esteemed committee my perspective relative to some of the current realities and prospects respecting the implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in this now Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. 

I am Julian Aguon, a Guam-based attorney whose work and legal scholarship centers on international law, specifically self-determination and decolonization in the separate, albeit at times overlapping, contexts of non-self-governing peoples on the one hand, and indigenous peoples on the other. By way of background, I am indigenous Chamoru of Guam, a small Pacific island that remains on your list of non-self-governing territories. 

I offer the following testimony in my capacity as a member of the Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice, a Guam-based nongovernmental organization engaged in self-determination scholarship and advocacy, as well as an international law scholar schooled in the subject of self-determination. I shall keep my comments limited to one of the more important and pressing issues being debated, and in my opinion, misrepresented, in Guam today; that is, the issue of whom constitutes the appropriate electorate in any self-determination plebiscite now or in the future held in Guam.

Though international law provides certain instructions on this matter, of late there has been an attempt in Guam (and other similarly situated territories) to distort the character of the “self” in self-determination, a situation that, if left unchecked, threatens to further confound the all-important implementation of the decolonization declaration in this Third Decade.

The following is an appraisal of the self-determination right under international law meant to speak to the twin issues of what it is and who holds it.

What is the content of the right of self-determination?

From the founding of the United Nations at the end of World War II until today, the international community has had to address the plight of colonized peoples, and later of indigenous peoples. Early in this period, it concluded that the situation of colonized peoples could be corrected only if they became formally vested with the right of self-determination. In fact, the UN Charter itself, being both a political compact and an organic document, asserted that the principle of the self-determination of peoples is the very foundation on which a new interstate system dedicated to the peaceful settlement of disputes and the outlawing of war is to be built. 

Later UN instruments, as well as the ensuing practice of states, then took on the task of delineating and elaborating on the right of self-determination itself.

Thus, the Charter’s Article 1 calls for the development of “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” Article 55, for its part, commands UN member-states to promote, among other values, “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” More specifically, Article 73 commands, in relation to the rights of peoples in non-self-governing territories like Guam who have not yet attained a full measure of self-government, that states administering them “recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount.” 

Moreover, the Article continues, these Administering Powers accept as a “sacred trust” the obligation to develop self-government in the territories, taking due account of the political aspirations of the people. Toward this end, subsection (e) of Article 73 commands Administering Powers to submit annual reports to the United Nations on the steps they have taken and the progress they have made to move the territories toward self-government.

The first UN instrument to formally announce the right of self-determination is the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, also known as Resolution 1514, which explains that “[t]he subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.” The Declaration then laid down this by now classic formulation of the right of self-determination: “All peoples have the right of self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” 

While General Assembly declarations and resolutions are not in themselves binding, they do engender binding propositions of customary international law to the extent that they either illuminate and record the position of the international community on any given legal subject, or elicit states’ adherence to their provisions. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its 1975 advisory opinion in the Western Sahara case confirmed as much when it relied heavily on General Assembly resolutions to establish basic legal principles concerning the right of peoples to self-determination.

Several later major international instruments, whether called conventions or treaties, subsequently contributed to the elaboration of the substance of the right of self-determination. Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the companion International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (known collectively as the 1966 Human Rights Covenants) enshrine self-determination as a right of all peoples. Approved by the General Assembly in 1966, and legally binding as of 1976, these treaties bind those countries that ratify them. The first article of each of the two Covenants, identically worded, repeats the classic formulation of the right quoted above, thereby establishing beyond doubt the right’s fundamental importance in the international architecture of not only interstate relations but also human rights law.

Finally, the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States, also known as Resolution 2625 (XXV), likewise reiterates that all peoples have the right to determine their political status without external interference, and further specifies that every state has the duty to respect this right. 

Unlike the 1966 Covenants, which bind only those states that ratify them, Resolution 2625 is considered a datum of customary international law binding on all countries.

A number of commentators, likely desirous of limiting the right of self-determination so as to preserve the current distribution of power in the world, argue that the right of self-determination has two dimensions – internal and external – with differing mandates, yet fail to produce a single instrument of international law to date that sets out this bifurcation.

These commentators depict internal self-determination as the right of a people within a state to “democratic” participation in government. They identify external self-determination, in contrast, as a people’s right to reject alien subjugation, typically in the contexts of colonization or military occupation. While this framing of self-determination has been challenged in the academic literature, the debate in any event has no bearing on the non-controversial proposition that the exercise of self-determination in a non-self-governing territory necessarily includes, indeed highlights, the external element. That is, a colonized people is entitled to the full, unequivocal and, need one add, scrupulously above-board opportunity to throw off colonialism via a plebiscite that offers voters the full spectrum of political status choices possible, from forms of incorporation, through forms of free association, to full independence.

Recent characterizations of the situation in New Caledonia as expressive of a new “fourth” expression of self-determination have been misleading. While legal and political developments in that territory have yielded yet another example of how a particular people might construct a multi-step process to achieve self-determination, the current situation in New Caledonia is not, and has never been held out, not even by the interested French party, as the end-product of a self-determination process required by the UN. Indeed, under the1998 Nouméa Accord, the Territorial Congress of New Caledonia is to call a plebiscite after 2014 on independence, which is hardly a new status in international law. The conflation by some commentators of the international norm of self-determination with interim arrangements of self-governance dangerously misrepresents the existing international law parameters of decolonization. Dangerous because the colonizer is always all too happy with the confusion that allows self-governance, a lid, to be mistakenly acquiesced to when the colonized have all along been entitled even to outright independence.

Who holds the right of self-determination?

Having dealt with the “what” of self-determination, it is now time to deal with its “who.” Textually, “peoples” are the collective “who” endowed with the right of self-determination.

But who are “peoples?” Or, as the question is often framed in Guam: Who is the “self” in self-determination? 

While there is no definition of “peoples” in international law, “peoples” for purposes of self-determination have historically been understood as those living under the yoke of alien, colonial, and/or racist domination and subjugation. In other words, these peoples were seen as suffering a grievous and unlawful injury inflicted on their collective being by outsiders. In consequence, they were entitled to the redress of “re-determining” themselves.

Through much of the 20th century, international law had little to say one way or the other on the issue of the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples as indigenous peoples.The latter were, when attended to at all, typically conflated with minority groups enclosed within states. The historic 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”) changed this. It explicitly recognizes that the classic right of self-determination also covers indigenous peoples. That said, it is important to note here that, under international law, colonized peoples and indigenous peoples are not necessarily one and the same. Where, as in Guam and New Caledonia, the colonized population at the onset of colonization also largely features, today, as the relevant colony’s indigenous people, it would seem evident that the latter’s right to self-determination is weighted with a double gravitas, so to speak, inasmuch as redress means the recovery of independence as well as of indigeneity, as spelled out in the UNDRIP.

In Guam of late, commentary about self-determination in the local press has resurrected the deceptively simple phrase Chamorro only vote. It has become clear that one of the most important issues to be settled before all else in Guam today is the issue of who gets to vote in any future self-determination plebiscite. Some, it should be noted, seek to racialize and so prejudge the issue by phrasing the question as: “Is it impermissibly racist or otherwise illegal to limit the electorate (those eligible to vote) to “native inhabitants” as that term is presently envisioned in Guam law, i.e., those persons who became U.S. Citizens by virtue of the authority and enactment of the 1950 Organic Act of Guam and descendants of those persons.

The correct approach, it is submitted here, requires us to understand that, for purposes of self-determination, “native inhabitant” is a history-based, not race-based, designation. Put another way, international law is not here concerned with blood and ancestry but with providing a people with redress, i.e., a remedy, for a historical wrong: the wrong of having been denied by others the right to exist, as they once did, on their own terms. Hence the legally significant set of questions in the colonial context is: who has been harmed by colonization so as to be entitled to the prescribed cure of decolonization; when did said harm occur; and, has the harm been cured?

Turning to the case of Guam, fellow international law scholars with whom I have discussed our situation conclude that though no single date for the onset of colonization of Guam has been incontrovertibly established, the most plausible date would be as early as1898, when Guam was ceded by Spain to the United States under the Treaty of Paris. In no event could the date be later than 1946, the year Guam was placed on the U.N. non-self-governing territories list. 

Thus, only those persons (and their descendants) living on the island on the date chosen may be considered victims of colonization. The ethnic composition of this group of persons, in this case predominantly Chamorro, is legally irrelevant for purposes of the decolonization remedy to which they are entitled. International law and practice is quite clear on this point. Incredibly enough, some commentators heard here have had the temerity to assert that the U.S. Constitution requires a color-blind compilation of the electorate that will cast ballots in Guam’s self-determination vote when it is the very reach of the U.S. into Guam, U.S. Constitution and all, that would be assessed in the vote. It appears these individuals do not know international law’s provisions for decolonization for they seem to forget that the anticipated self-determination act falls under the aegis of international, not U.S. domestic, law.

In 1980, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on member states to prevent migration to colonial territories lest it frustrate the colonized population’s eventual exercise of self-determination. In its Plan of Action for the Full Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, the General Assembly instructs that member states “shall adopt the necessary measures to discourage or prevent the systematic influx of outside immigrants and settlers into territories under colonial domination, which disrupts the demographic compositions of those territories and may constitute a major obstacle to the genuine exercise of the right to self-determination and independence by the people of those territories.” 

This language indicates that, to the extent that new populations, ethnic and otherwise, are “let in” to the colony by way of the colonizer’s control of immigration, said populations are not deemed to be part of the colonized polity and thus neither they nor their descendants are entitled to the right of self-determination which is, in the colonial context, the remedy for the injury of colonization.

Further still, in Resolution 2625, the General Assembly instructs that the physical territory of a non-self-governing territory “has, under the Charter, a status separate and distinct from the territory of the State administering it; and such separate and distinct status under the Charter shall exist until the people of the colony or Non Self-Governing Territory have exercised their right to self-determination in accordance with the Charter, and particularly its purposes and principles.” This language further indicates that the United States, as Guam’s Administering Power, cannot first exploit its control over Guam’s immigration to flood the island with its own non-colonized expatriates, or even third-party settlers, and then claim that every person residing in Guam is entitled to vote in a decolonization plebiscite.

The international community has previously repudiated a similar proposition advanced by French parties in Kanaky/New Caledonia. There, France had argued for years previous to the 1998 Nouméa Accord that all French citizens who had moved from France to Kanaky/New Caledonia had the right to vote in any self-determination referendum in the colony. Denying them the vote, it said, would be tantamount to discrimination forbidden, it continued, by France’s Constitution, laws and, it claimed, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”), which bars racial discrimination.

In 2002, in the case of Gillot et al. v. France, the Human Rights Committee, which is the treaty body created by the ICCPR to monitor its implementation, addressed the issue of voting restrictions placed on a class of residents of Kanaky/New Caledonia. The case involved French citizens who failed to meet qualifications for voting in future referenda as set out in the 1998 Nouméa Accord executed between representatives of France and the Kanaky independence movement both of whom, in the process of negotiating the Accord, made several political concessions to the other on the matter of the composition of the electorate.

Said French citizens brought the case to the Committee under the Optional Protocol attached to the ICCPR. The Committee – in explaining that a referendum to effectuate a colonized people’s right of self-determination is not to be likened to ordinary elections – adopted the reasoning that it is in the very nature of a self-determination referendum that it should be “limited to eliciting the opinion of, not the whole of the national population, but the persons concerned with the future of a limited territory who prove that they possess certain specific characteristics.” Such a “restricted electorate,” it ruled, did not violate the treaty’s anti-discrimination provisions because these must be read in the first place to harmonize with the ICCPR’s own Article 1 highlighting the right of self-determination.

The Committee noted that such voting restrictions work to “ensure that the referendums reflect the will of the population ‘concerned’ and that their results cannot be undermined by a massive vote by people who have recently arrived in the territory and have no proven, strong ties to it.” The French claimants were challenging, among other referenda provisions, a 20-year residency requirement for voting. 

The Committee found that the cut-off points set for the referendum of 1998, and for referenda from 2014 on, were neither discriminatory nor excessive inasmuch as they were in keeping with the nature and purpose of these ballots, namely a self-determination process involving the participation of persons able to prove sufficiently strong ties to the territory whose future is being decided. The Committee summed up its view as follows: restrictions on the electorate in the 1998 Noumea Accords are not discriminatory but instead based on “objective grounds for differentiation that are reasonable and compatible with the provisions of the Covenant.”

I would like now to take this opportunity to apprise you of a recent attempt by one Guam resident to invoke U.S. domestic law and legal process to preemptively deny the colonized people of Guam from exercising the self-determination right. Late last year, a retired U.S.Air Force officer, Arnold “Dave Davis, filed a lawsuit in hopes of overturning the Guam law that limits the electorate in any future self-determination plebiscite to those falling within the statutory definition of a “native inhabitant of Guam,” that is, persons who became U.S.Citizens by virtue of the authority and enactment of the 1950 Organic Act of Guam and descendants of those persons. 

The lawsuit was filed in the District Court of Guam and is brought against the Territory of Guam, the Guam Election Commission, election commissioners, and the Attorney General of Guam. Davis is being represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a non-profit, advocacy group based in Washington D.C. Davis filed the lawsuit citing a prior occasion during which he purportedly attempted to register for the Decolonization Registry but was denied because he did not meet Guam law’s definition of a “native inhabitant of Guam.” Again, current Guam law provides that those persons who lived in Guam and were made a U.S. citizen at the time of the passage of the Organic Act of Guam in 1950, and their descendents, are eligible to register for the self-Determination plebiscite. 

Again, Davis’ lawyers are arguing that Guam’s decolonization statutory scheme violates federal constitutional and statutory law. Their basic contention appears to be that ancestry is always a proxy for race and as such Guam’s decolonization statutory scheme,specifically its limiting definition of a “native inhabitant of Guam,” is unconstitutional race-based discrimination under U.S. domestic law. Guam’s Attorney General’s Office, defending the Government of Guam, made a motion to dismiss the case, which was in turn supported by an amicus curiae brief. The federal court has yet to formally rule on the government’s motion to dismiss. We in Guam wait with baited breath for that ruling.

As herein explained, Guam’s decolonization statutory scheme in general, and its limiting definition of “native inhabitant of Guam” in particular, falls well within the well-demarcated parameters of the international law on self-determination. Thus, current Guam law does not run afoul of international law, including international law’s general prohibition of racial discrimination. Rather, it might even be said that Guam law sophisticatedly reflects international law’s ability, as a normative system, to reconcile both the self-determination norm and the non-discrimination norm running through the international legal system.

Moreover, any attempt to privilege the latter over the former is jurisprudentially faulty given the former’s exalted status as peremptory norm of international law.

Finally, a last word on the charge that limiting the electorate in any future self-determination referendum in Guam to those defined as “native inhabitants” would be unconstitutional vis-à-vis the U.S. Constitution. This charge prominently displays the failure, so prevalent in the U.S. and U.S. influenced territories, to reach for international law to help solve a problem that is clearly international in nature. Beyond the cynicism inherent in the call to conform a project of potentially separating from the U.S. to U.S. law, the failure marks a chilling conceptual inability in the American imagination to see the world in any light other than what the American establishment has shone.

In closing, I repeat here the recommendations advanced by Dr. LisaLinda Natividad, on behalf of the Government of Guam and the Honorable Governor Eddie Baza Calvo, at the recent regional seminar in Quito, Ecuador:

(1) That Guam remain on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories until its people have had the opportunity to exercise their inalienable human right to political self-determination;

(2) That Guam be a site of the next Pacific Regional Seminar in 2014 so that members of the Special Committee may learn first-hand of the situation on Guam;

(3) That the United Nations provide both financial and technical assistance for an educational campaign for all people of Guam relative to the political status plebiscite in the near future;

(4) That the United Nations hold the administering power, the United States, responsible for providing funding to support a political status educational campaign;

(5) That the United Nations sends a Visiting Mission to the Non-Self-Governing Territory of Guam to observe any future self-determination plebiscite held therein; and

(6) That the United Nations adopt a Resolution that reflects a case-by-case decolonization plan for each of the non-self-governing territories to be achieved in the Third Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.

To these recommendations, I add one:

(7) That this committee immediately take any and all affirmative steps necessary, within the United Nations framework, to collaborate with the United Nations Sixth (Legal) Committee to develop and publish, within one (1) year from today’s date, a position paper that squarely addresses the legal issue(s) addressed herein, namely the issue of whom constitutes the appropriate electorate in any self-determination plebiscite now or in the future held in Guam; and that this committee further transmit a copy of any such paper to each remaining non-self-governing territory.

Thank you.

U.N. Special Committee calls for self-determination of Puerto Rico

18 June 2012
General Assembly

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York
Special Committee on Decolonization
6th & 7th Meetings (AM & PM)


Also Requests General Assembly to Consider Issue Comprehensively,

Calls for Release of Political Prisoners, As More Than 30 Petitioners Take Floor

The Special Committee on Decolonization today called on the United States to expedite a process that would allow Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence, requesting the General Assembly to consider the question of Puerto Rico comprehensively in all its aspects.

By the terms of a draft resolution, which was approved by consensus, the Special Committee—formally known as the Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples—noted the broad support of eminent persons, Governments and political forces in Latin America and the Caribbean for the independence of Puerto Rico.

It again noted the debate in Puerto Rico on the implementation of a mechanism that would ensure the full participation of representatives of all viewpoints prevailing in Puerto Rico—including a constitutional assembly on status with a basis in the decolonization alternatives recognized in international law.  It was aware that any initiative for the solution of the political status should originate from the people of Puerto Rico.  It also urged the United States—in line with the need to guarantee Puerto Ricans their right to self-determination—to complete the return of occupied land and installations on Vieques Island and in Ceiba to Puerto Ricans.

Introducing the text, Cuba’s representative said that since 1972, 30 resolutions and decisions on Puerto Rico had been adopted, but in 40 years, very little progress had been made.  The people of Puerto Rico were still unable to exercise their genuine right to self-determination and the United States continued to wield power over their economy.

He said the text, among other things, took note of the Special Declaration on Puerto Rico, adopted by the Heads of State and Government of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas in Caracas in February 2012, which expressed strong support for the inalienable right of Puerto Ricans to self‑determination and full independence.  The draft also reiterated the Special Committee’s request to the United States President to release Puerto Rican political prisoners serving sentences in the United States for cases relating to the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico.

Making their case before the Special Committee—also known as the Special Committee of 24—some of the more than 30 petitioners decried the island’s current Commonwealth status with the United States, which outlines the United States’ congressional authority over the island.  That status determines that Puerto Ricans living on the island do not vote in United States presidential elections, despite being United States citizens, and do not have full representation in Congress.  Their interests are supported by a Resident Coordinator, who serves as a non-voting member of the House of Representatives.

Petitioners pressed the international community to recognize Puerto Rico’s colonial status and place it on the list of United Nations Non-Self-Governing Territories.  Bringing life to that cause, José M. López, of Compañeros Unidos para la Descolonización de Puerto Rico, said the decolonization process was carried out under international jurisdiction, a fact most Puerto Ricans did not know, as the United States had convinced them it was a domestic issue.  Puerto Rico must be decolonized via the United Nations.  What justification was there to leave out the most populated and oldest colony in the world?

Another part of the equation, said Juan Dalmau Ramirez, of the Partido Independista Purtorriqueno,involved placing international pressure on the colonial power by urging Latin American and Caribbean countries to express solidarity with anti-colonization efforts at the United Nations.  Such claims would be an important contribution to the “convergence of will” towards the decolonization process in Puerto Rico.

Some petitioners favoured statehood for Puerto Rico, arguing that the territory already functioned as such, with an elected governor.  It was just missing the declaration of statehood, which would bring it the right to vote for President, and elect two senators and seven congressmen.  While some believed Puerto Rico was a free associated State, said Nilda Luz Rexach, National Advancement for Puerto Rico, the island was no such thing, as its Constitution had been tailored and authorized by the United States Congress, making it clear that federal law would overrule that of Puerto Rico on any occasion.  The Commonwealth was just a lie.

Others argued for full independence, stressing the need to liberate the Puerto Rican people and denouncing United States authority over Puerto Rican borders.  The island had become a United States testing ground for genetically modified plants and other experiments, the consequences of which had been borne by the local people.  Francisco Velgara, Frente Socailista de Puerto Rico, also voiced opposition to recent attempts to impose English as an official language, pledging to defend Puerto Rican culture.

Several agreed that the issue of status would not be solved by the conduct of a referendum.  They took issue with legislation adopted by the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) Government for a plebiscite regarding Puerto Rico’s political status to be held on 6 November.  The plebiscite would ask voters whether they agreed with maintaining the current territorial status and, further, whether they would prefer statehood, independence or free association with the United States as an alternative.  Jan Susler, of the People’s Law Office/National Lawyers Guild, said the exercise would not resolve the status question, as results would not be binding on the United States and would ignore the mandates of international law.

Integral to the status question, other petitioners said, was that of Puerto Rican political prisoners being held in United States prisons.  Their incarceration was a violation of international human rights, particularly in the cases of Oscar Lopez Rivera, Avelino Gonzalez Claudio and Norberto Gonzalez Claudio, who, prior to their arrests, had joined the Puerto Rican independence movement.  Their excessive sentences had made clear that “the goal was to punish them for their beliefs and not for the acts alleged by the US Government,” said Benjamin Ramos Rosado, of the Prolibertad Freedom Campaign.

Their crime was one of ideas, added Carlos Alberto Torres, of Futuro Sin Fala, who had been held as a political prisoner by the United States for 30 years, from 1980 to 2010.  Since United States occupation, thousands of Puerto Ricans had been jailed.  Colonialism was the real crime, not the effort to resist it.

Other petitioners addressing the Special Committee today were representatives of the following organizations:  Comité de Puerto Rico en Naciones Unidas, Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano, Coalición Puertorriqueña contra la Pena de Muerte, La Fundacion Andres Figueroa Cordero, Movimiento de Afirmacion Vieques, American Association of Jurists, Puertorriqueños Unidos En Accion (PUA), Alianza pro Libre Asociacion Soberana, Ithaca Catholic Workers Vieques Support Group, Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican Independence Party, Socialist Workers Party, Comité de Derechos Humanos de Puerto Rico, Movimiento Unión Soberanista de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, Frente Patriotico Arecibeño, Comite Toabajeños Contra El Gasoducto, Centro Mujer y Nueva Familia, National Jericho Movement and Taller de la Playa.

Also speaking today were representatives of Egypt, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, Iran, Ecuador, Syria and Cuba.

The Special Committee on Decolonization will reconvene at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 19 June, for a discussion with United Nations specialized agencies on the implementation of the Declaration of the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.
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