22 June 2014

Cautious U.N. procedures are impeding the decolonization process


 Overseas Territories Review

            Last week, the United Nations (U.N.) Decolonization Committee began its 2014 hearings on the seventeen non self-governing on the U.N. General Assembly list. They began with Western Sahara and Gibraltar, two of the three territories subject to sovereignty disputes. Hearings will continue over the next several weeks on the British and American administered dependencies in the Caribbean and Pacific, the French administered Pacific dependencies, and the Falkland Islands/Malvinas claimed both by neighboring Argentina and far distant United Kingdom. Thanks to the U.N. webcast, the full committee sessions are available for viewing across the globe. Last Monday's committee meeting provided a glimpse into some of the longstanding challenges faced by the U.N. in completing the decolonization process.

During its resumed session last Monday, the committee heard a presentation by the Frente POLISARIO, the representative of the people of Western Sahara which remains under  the control of the North African state of Morocco. Self-determination for the Sahrawi people has been stymied for decades with Morocco stalling the referendum process in favor of a proposed dependency status under the guise of 'autonomy'.  Meanwhile, the natural resources of Western Sahara, whose ownership is supposedly protected by U.N. doctrine and International Court of Justice rulings, are instead being usurped with the help of willing interlocutors like the Europe Union (E.U.) through agreements with Morocco to exploit the territory's fisheries resources.

The case of Gibraltar, however,  differs significantly from its counterpart in Northern Africa. Unlike Western Sahara, Gibraltar represents a dispute between two E.U. states, Spain and the United Kingdom (U.K.), over the interpretation of centuries old treaties of ownership of that tiny sliver of land between the two nations. But unlike Western Sahara where the issues of self-determination and independence are the focus, the elected Gibraltar authorities have historically sought international legitimization of its dependency status with the U.K. The Gibraltar authorities told the committee last Monday that the 1970  U.N. Resolution 2625 gives credence to any political option as long as it has been chosen by the people - regardless of whether it is self-governing or not. They use this as the basis for their argument to be removed from the U.N. list, and have repeatedly asked the U.N. to clarify this issue.

Their interpretation of Resolution 2625, however, is misguided, and had been earlier clarified in a 2006 expert analysis on the criteria for de-listing a territory disseminated to U.N. member states at that time. The analysis explained that the intention of the General Assembly in the 1970 resolution was not to legitimize a dependency status which fell short of "a full measure of self-government with political equality." In other words, the U.N. does not authenticate such arrangements as fully self-governing if they are not.

But the committee discussion on Gibraltar raised a number of issues reflective of present U.N. procedures. In order to determine the self-governance sufficiency of a given political arrangement, the U.N. is mandated to examine new or existing dependency governance frameworks on a case-by-case basis according to annual U.N. resolutions.  The problem is that such case-by-case reviews are not being performed - not for the 'autonomy' proposal promoted for Western Sahara, nor for the prevailing constitutional order of Gibraltar, nor for the political arrangements in place or envisaged for any of the other remaining dependencies. Understandably, this has resulted in a lack of clarity on the part of the territories and member States alike on where the democratic deficiencies exist in these non self-governing arrangements. In the absence of such analysis, however, the U.N. committee hearings are limited to repetitive re-statement of position. There appears to be no scope for committee examination as to whether such dependency arrangements as Gibraltar pass the self-governance test.

Such studies as the 2006 expert analysis, the 2006 Program of Implementation (POI) endorsed by the General Assembly and others would shed considerable light on some of the fundamental questions continually raised in the U.N. decolonization proceedings by the territorial leaders who continue to seek clarity on the rules of the decolonization process. These questions are mostly met with silence, and sometimes defensiveness on the part of the committee. This makes the committee vulnerable to increasing criticism by the representatives of the territories who are genuinely seeking answers on the relevance of the U.N. and international law in their decolonization process, and how this role is to be carried out in view of  myriad U.N. resolutions on decolonization and self-determination. The territories simply wish to know the reasons for the insufficient implementation of these resolutions designed to assist - and even guide - their political development. They have a right to such clarity.

The Chief Minister of Gibraltar sought as much in his statement to the committee last Monday, and  his queries could have been easily addressed. But the response was merely to point out the committee's limitation of action. This does not address the substance of the matter. An even cursory review of the Gibraltar Constitutional Order reveals substantial democratic deficiencies if U.N. principles of self-government are applied, and there is a responsibility to inform them of that fact. The Chief Minister of the territory recalled that its constitutional documents had been submitted to the committee years ago for analysis. But no review was ever published on Gibraltar or any of the other territories on the U.N. list. Yet it is the clarity brought by examination of the elements of the various dependency models which is critical. Otherwise, awkward exchanges as the one seen across the globe on the webcast between the Gibraltar leader and the committee last week will continue to be repeated. This only serves the interests of those who seek to further marginalize the U.N.'s role in decolonization.

A similar scenario to that of Gibraltar played out in the U.N.'s decolonization seminar in Fiji last May. In this case, the representative of the Government of Guam made a series of recommendations designed to assist that territory's ongoing political education program leading to a political status referendum in the territory.  The representative asked for a more proactive U.N. approach to provide information to the territories on the decolonization options,  the development of  individual work programs for each territory - as the decolonization resolutions have mandated for years, and expert political analysis on the nature of the dependency arrangements as mandated in the plan of action of the first, second and presently the third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.

These are not new issues, but are measures repeatedly reaffirmed for action by the General Assembly for years. It should not, therefore, be seen as unreasonable that a territorial representative might question why these actions have not been carried out for decades. This is the information they need to move their own political status processes forward. But it is this very lack of clarity brought on by the absence of information and analysis which has impeded the decolonization process in these territories. It is the insufficiency of substantive response from the committee on these issues which has led to a creeping disillusionment in many territories with the committee's cautiously arcane methods.

The requests by these territories for the U.N. to carry out the actions called for in the U.N. resolutions should not be seen by U.N. member states as demeaning to the committee, but is certainly reflective of a growing frustration with a lack of accountability of the U.N. as the guardian of the  decolonization mandate. It may speak to a lack of political will on the part of the U.N. to implement its own decolonization decisions. It may also speak to the posture of a U.N. bureaucracy unwilling or unable to carry out this mandate, and which is allowed to pick and choose which actions it will undertake, and which it will not. But whatever the reason, the system seems content to define its role so narrowly as to avoid responsibility for anything more than preparing annual information documents on each territory while bypassing the far more elaborate actions contained in decolonization resolutions. The decolonization process has slowed, not merely because the administering powers have been allowed to formally absent themselves from the process, but equally because the U.N. system has not implemented its own actions. 

Just how the U.N. defines its role sheds considerable light in this respect. The U.N.'s own Biennial Program Plan and Priorities for servicing the decolonization agenda for  2014-2015 lists as the sole two "indicators of achievement" the "timely submission of parliamentary documents" and the "sustained level of support to the work of the Special Committee in facilitating communication with the administering Powers." These are the identical indicators of achievement included in the U.N. budget for years, and are the same proposed for the 2016-2017 period. Such limited measures by which to assess achievement speaks for themselves.

Through all of this, there is no reason for the member states of the Decolonization Committee to continue to defend moribund procedures which appear to have evolved over time. The Decolonization Committee was not created in 1961 to be mired in such timidity. What is required is for those same member states to ensure that the U.N. procedures used to service the decolonization agenda are modernized to ensure accountability. This could start with a fundamental re-write of the "indicators of achievement".  Without substantive change to these U.N. procedures, and without a serious effort at accountability for implementing the mandate, true decolonization may not be able to withstand the pressures of inertia.