03 March 2016

U.N. International Decade(s) to End Colonialism - 25 years later

Special to Overseas Territories Review

The United Nations (U.N.) Special Committee on Decolonisation (C-24) opened its 2016 session on 25th February 2016 at U.N. Headquarters in New York to pursue implementation of its its longstanding decolonisation agenda. Secretary-General (S.G.) Ban Ki-moon, in a written statement delivered by U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Tayé-Brook Zerihoun indicated that U.N. "efforts to realise the goals of the third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (IDEC) must shift more towards implementation." He emphasised that "we must do better, focusing on carrying out the actions approved by the General Assembly."

These most recent pronouncements of the Secretary-General follow on from the approval by the General Assembly of its 2015 policies to bring about the end of contemporary colonialism made durings its plenary session last December. This came after the adoption last September of Resolution 69/316 unanimously reaffirming the principle of "self-determination of peoples."

In confirming actions necessary to implement the decolonisation mandate, the member States have long approved in decades of its resolutions a series of actions in political education for the people of the territories, support for assistance to them from the wider U.N. system, the provision of education opportunities for their students, and the reaffirmation of their right to the natural resources, among other initiatives. 

The resolution last September commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations by "reaffirm(ing)its commitment to the purposes and principles of the (U.N.) Charter which are indispensable foundations of a more peaceful, prosperous and just world; and by reiterat(ing) its determination to foster strict respect for these principles. The  U.N. Charter  itself contains relevant articles on this U.N. doctrine including Article 1 which maintains the "respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,"  and Article 55 which emphasises the organic link between the creation of "conditions of stability and well-being"  with "respect" for these principles. 

Further, Article 73 (b) of the U.N. Charter goes on to set forth the specific international legal obligations of those U.N. member states which administer the remainder of the world's non self-governing territories (NSGTs) "to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement." Suffice to say that the decolonisation mandate dates to the very creation of the U.N. 

General Assembly Hall, United Nations New York

International Decade(s) to Eradication Colonialism 

Over the last quarter century, the U.N. General Assembly has acted to give substance to these, and earlier, obligations of the Charter. In 2010, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (IDEC) covering the period 2011-2020. The year 2015 marked the midpoint of that Third International Decade and 25 years since the approval of the first IDEC. At this quarter-century benchmark, the level of implementation of the mandate remains very much unfulfilled with only one territory (Timor Leste) achieving the full measure of self-government during the period. 

This lack of success can in no small measure be attributed to the failure of cooperation on the part of those States which administer the majority of territories - the Administering Powers. Accordingly, the United Kingdom (U.K.) administers ten of the seventeen remaining Non Self-Governing Territories (NSGTs) formally listed by the U.N., the United States (U.S.) controls an additional three, and France maintains two formal dependency arrangements listed by the U.N. All maintain additional territories which are not U.N.- listed as they do not meet the minimum international standards for the full measure of self-government. 

Trouble is, there is no formal U.N. review process in place to re-examine the self-governance sufficiency of those formerly-listed dependencies, and such assessment has to be done outside the U.N. system. With the formal withdrawal of the U.K. and U.S. from participation in the U.N. decolonisation process in the 1986 and 1992, respectively, the U.N.'s efforts to end contemporary colonialism has been allowed to "effectively stall." This was the conclusion of a 2007 U.N. investigative report which revealed significant flaws in the U.N.'s method of work in addressing its decolonisation agenda. There has been little progress in decolonisation implementation since the 2007 U.N. examination even as the  report did serve to reveal significant structural deficiencies in how the U.N. handles its decolonisation agenda. 

But it is clear that the reluctance of these Administering Powers to formally engage the relevant U.N. committees to bring about full and complete decolonisation in the territories under their administration continues to impede the process, and is often used as an excuse for lack of implementation of the decolonisation mandate by the U.N. system as a whole. This is unlike the exemplary cooperation provided by New Zealand in the stewardship of the Pacific NSGT of Tokelau. But with the international legal obligations of the U.N. Charter going largely ignored, the three main Administering Powers employ a strategy of "colonial accommodation." This is a maneuver which seeks to portray the prevailing dependency arrangements as acceptable models of self-government. Accordingly, they advocate the removal of the territories from the U.N. list of NSGTs - without their having undertaken genuine acts of self-determination, and without their ever having actually achieved the full measure of self-government pursuant to international standards. As one territorial scholar put it: 

"De-listing without proper assessment of whether these territories have actually achieved full self-government or not may represent a quantitative reduction in the list of NSGTs. This is actually desirable for States and parts of the U.N. bureaucracy alike who are faced with a sort of 'decolonisation fatigue' with the repetitive process of approving resolutions year after year with no accountability for their actual implementation. But untimely de-listing of these territories from U.N. oversight would not represent a qualitative leap towards the full measure of self-government for the people of a prematurely de-listed territory who would be ultimately and cruelly betrayed for sake of political expediency."

The Regional Perspective 

Given the present circumstances, it is not surprising that there are no real self-determination processes underway in the eight NSGTs in the Caribbean administered by the British and U.S., respectively. Ironically, the only recent political status referendum in the region was held in 2014 in the Dutch-administered territory of Sint Eustatius which is now seeking to be re-inscribed on the U.N. list of NSGTs from which it had been de-listed (along with other Dutch-controlled islands) in the mid 1950's. 

In the Pacific, ongoing political status processes in New Caledonia (Kanaky) and Guam (Guahan) remain subject to the unilateral application of the laws of the respective Administering Powers which govern (directly or indirectly) the electoral systems of these territories. This is counter to the requisite 'transfer of powers' required by the landmark Decolonisation Declaration in advance of a legitimate exercise of self-determination. Accordingly, a referendum on political status options required to meet the rules unilaterally imposed by the Administering Powers can facilitate the improper participation of settlers from the cosmopole in a process designed for the people of the territory. This can, no doubt, inordinately affect the outcome of any political status referendum process. Such a procedure cannot be seen as consistent with a legitimate act of self-determination under international law. The General Assembly in its Plan of Action for the Full Implementation of the (Decolonisation) Declaration (Resolution 35/118) clarified this issue in 1980:

"Member States should adopt the necessary measures to prevent or discourage the systematic influx of outside immigrants and settlers into Territories under colonial domination, which disrupts the demographic composition of those Territories and may constitute a major obstacle in the genuine exercise of the right to self-determination and independence by the people of those Territories."  

Nevertheless, U.S. State Department lawyer Meredith Johnston at a Washington D.C. panel discussion on the three U.S.-administered territories of American Samoa, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands in February, 2016 expressed the different interpretation that "international law defines the people of  a territory as all of the people in the territory." The official did not cite which 'international law' was being referenced. Yet, international law has provided for numerous examples to the contrary: 

* The legitimacy of numerous long term residency requirements being utilised for the upcoming referendum in New Caledonia does not include "all of the people in the territory." These procedures were upheld by the European Court of Human Rights, and repeatedly confirmed by the U.N. General Assembly - even as the process is reported to be manipulated by the Administering Power which controls the electoral system of the territory, including its voter registration.

* Eligibility criteria for the participation of the voters in the 1999 act of self-determination in East Timor (later known as Timor Leste) were established on the basis of East Timor identity.

* Numerous General Assembly resolutions have been adopted - with U.S. approval - recognising that the right to self-determination lies with the people of Guam. Further provisions governing the eligibility criteria for the people of the neighboring U.S.-administered (but un-listed) Northern Mariana Islands were enabled during that territory's political transition process, and reflected in its constitution.  

The Pacific also finds the third major administering Power, France, continuing to ignore the consensus resolution of the U.N. General Assembly which had re-inscribed the territory of French Polynesia on the NSGT list in 2013, along with subsequent resolutions on the territory. France had unilaterally removed French Polynesia (along with New Caledonia and others) from the U.N. list (with apparent concurrence of the other administering Powers and a compliant U.N. system) only one year after the creation of the NSGT list in 1946. This action was taken without any U.N. review of self-governance sufficiency, reflecting the composition of the U.N. membership at that early period of the U.N.'s existence. It wasn't until 1986 that New Caledonia was properly re-listed (amid strong French objection), whilst French Polynesia had to wait until 2013 before the re-listing of that territory (again, with strong French objection). 

The French Polynesia initiative only succeeded due to the tremendous effort and leadership by the pro-self-determination government of the territory led by then-President Oscar Temaru. His efforts were bolstered by the findings of a Self-Governance Assessment conducted by the independent Dependency Studies Project which found a substantial political power imbalance between the territory and the cosmopole under the guise of "autonomy."  Thus, the people of French Polynesia had been stuck in  the 'dependency periphery' for sixty-six years without benefit of U.N. oversight, having been fed the narrative that their "autonomous" status was an acceptable form of self-government under the French version of colonial accommodation.

Compensation for Nuclear Testing  

French colonialism was used strategically to usher in over 30 years of French nuclear testing in French Polynesia. (with similar French tests undertaken in Algeria). The re-listing of French Polynesia by the U.N. has served, at the least, to remind the international community that the issue of compensation from the French for the victims of nuclear testing remains very much a priority for the people of the territory. A petition in 2016 containing more than 30,000 signatures thus far calling for just compensation is evidence of that fact. Interestingly, the French Polynesia Assembly in 2014 approved a resolution on this question that quantified the amount owed for the impact of the nuclear tests on the people and their society. This resolution of the territorial Assembly was transmitted to the U.N., but seems to have been consciously omitted from U.N. resolutions on the territory via some form of diplomatic sleight of hand. Yet, it would not be surprising if French President Francois Hollande's statement of mere recognition of the nuclear testing impacts, made during his February 2016 visit to the territory, finds its way into the resolution.The French President's position broke little ground, with its acknowledgment that:

"the nuclear tests conducted between 1966 and 1996 in French Polynesia had an environmental impact, caused health consequences and also, is a paradox,(which) caused social upheaval when the tests themselves ceased."

The lack of commitment to reparation in the statement fell far short of an apology and any real commitment for reparation. He agreed only to certain reforms to the existing failed French 'compensation' process through a 'review'  - and perhaps an adjustment - of the failed existing procedures for processing the applications filed for reparations by the nuclear test victims and the families of those who have succumbed from their illnesses attributed to the tests. Even the pro-status quo President of the territory Edouard Fritch admitted that the Hollande statement "did not go as far as we had hoped" - whilst simultaneously suggesting that the French President's words were "a real step forward." 

The situation clearly demands that the U.N. resolution on French Polynesia reflect the complexity of this issue in its 2016 text, and that it calls on France to provide a genuine programme of compensation for victims and their families, for the effective clean-up of the nuclear waste left behind, and the rehabilitation of the natural resources of the affected areas.

The organisations of the victims of nuclear testing were thoroughly unimpressed with the Hollands speech. Nor was the umbrella group of French environmental organisations swayed by the French President's words, questioning how a 'page can be turned' on the nuclear issue (as Hollande had suggested) "if the toxic waste is still there and weakened atolls risk collapsing." The group revealed that "only 19 of 2,000 applications for compensation have been accepted," and called on France "to admit that it committed a crime in French Polynesia by detonating the nuclear bombs and that it has to repair the damage." The umbrella body also pointed out that "declassified documents show that France carried out the tests fully aware that they would irradiate the people in the area."

A 2014 report of the U.N. Secretary-General on the effects of the 193 tests in French Polynesia was woefully short on substance, and a more substantive report is sorely required. The report may have satisfied the U.N. requirement, in principle, but it only scratched the surface of the issue. A far more substantive report on the matter is necessary if the U.N. is going to seriously examine this important matter affecting the lives of the people of the territory. A good start would be through the mandated publication by the U.N. of the 2014 Independent Report on the French Nuclear Testing in French Polynesia completed by prominent French scientists, and available to the U.N.

It is interesting to recall that the Marshall Islands continues to engage an illusive U.S. Government on this very same question of compensation for nuclear testing. A 2011 report of the U.N. Secretary General provided a "summary of the assessments undertaken on the topic over several decades by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation."  A 2012 report prepared by a Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights Council on the Marshall Islands examined the issues in greater depth. At the least, both reports, to varying degrees, have served to keep the issue of the effects of nuclear testing on the international agenda, particularly in the U.N. substantive committees which review nuclear disarmament, and in the Scientific Committee cited above. The inclusion in the 2016 resolution of a request for the Special Rapporteur to investigate the same issue in French Polynesia would be one proactive approach of several that the U.N. Decolonisation Committee could take during its 2016 session. 

Rule of Law

U.N. member States are obliged to follow the decisions of the General Assembly and to abide by their international obligations of the U.N. Charter. But in rejection of its Article 73(e) obligations of the U.N. Charter, France - a permanent member of the U.N, Security Council - has declined to provide required information to the U.N. on the situation in French Polynesia since the 2013 U.N. consensus re-inscription of the territory. They have further declined to engage the territory in a genuine process of self-determination. Instead, they rush out of the meeting hall before the U.N. debate on the territory begins rather than staying to defend their position. They return to their seat after discussions on the territory have concluded - a neat avoidance strategy employed to avoid a discussion on the 'sensitive' issues. 

To its credit, France does report to the U.N. on the self-determination process for New Caledonia (Kanaky). The Noumea Accord which is the internationally recognised instrument governing the decolonisation of that territory contains provisions to protect the very "peoples"  referred to in the U.N. Charter. But manipulation of the voter eligibility criteria in the upcoming electoral processes leading to the self-determination referendum in New Caledonia before 2018 threatens to overtake the vote of the people of the territory through the registration of French settlers otherwise ineligible to participate under the agreed Accord. Reports in early 2016 indicate that over 3,000 such ineligible persons are registered to vote in the referendum. 

It is feared that these maneuvers could be used to thwart the potential result favouring independence through the influence of settler voters who are said to generally support continued or modernised dependency status. This would facilitate the continuous claims by France to the exclusive economic zone of the territory, and its attendant undersea resources - counter to decisions of the International Court of Justice (ICOJ) which confirmed that the resources of an NSGT belong to the people of the territory, not the Administering Power. The U.N. Decolonisation Committee visited the territory in the Spring of 2015 to address the electoral issue, issued a report, and continues to monitor the situation. But clearly, the issue is far from sorted out.

Colonial Intransigence and U.N. Decolonisation Gridlock
Through all of this, the U.N. system through its 'repetition of process' appears to be held hostage by Administering Power intransigence on the one hand, and overt/covert manipulation on the other. Even with the U.K. and U.S. formal withdrawal from cooperation with the U.N. on the decolonisation agenda, both Administering Powers appear to exercise inordinate influence on that process through an informal consultation mechanism which is anything but transparent. Ironically, this informal process is often heralded in the Decolonisation Committee in a positive way, departing from previous U.N. resolutions which have expressly called for the Administering Powers to to return to formal cooperation with the Decolonization Committee, and overall U.N. review process of the NSGTs. 

Meanwhile, the French selectivity to decide which territory under its administration it will discuss in the U.N., and which one it will ignore, is permitted only because the rest of the member States have not contested this practice, thus far. Of course, the French strategic absence from the conference table relieves them of the responsibility of having to engage in discussions on its system of political inequality and unilateralism exercised vis a vis the dependencies under its administration. These were the very reasons which confirmed the reason for placing New Caledonia and French Polynesia back on the U.N. list in the first instance. But in this way, the lack of French compensation for the health and other impacts caused by those many years of nuclear testing, the illegal usurpation of the territories' marine resources, and many other issues impeding the implementation of the Decolonisation Declaration cannot be challenged. Rather convenient, this "informal consultation" process.

United Nations Headquarters New York

Clearly, these three P-5 members (France, U.K. and U.S.) simply do not wish to place themselves in the position of having to 'defend the indefensible' -  that is to say, having to justify the unilateral colonial practices exercised in these territories counter to international law. Their continued insistence that these territories have somehow achieved an acceptable form of self-government - without bothering to provide any concrete evidence to support their contention - is wholly contradicted by even a cursory examination of the objective political reality of the cosmopole-territory relationship. But even such a cursory examination is missing from the method of work of the U.N. committees responsible for the decolonisation process.

Alas, the absence of political analysis of these dependency arrangements as required by the U.N. since the first International Decade over 25 years ago speaks volumes for the lack of solutions to the contemporary colonial dilemma as the undertaking of the required studies and analyses has been skillfully and adeptly avoided for decades. Meanwhile, the Administering Powers continue to formally reject the very relevance of the U.N. to deal with what these Powers now insist are 'internal matters."  In fact, it is the colonial stewardship of these very Administering Powers which is the real issue at hand, and very much remains within the purview of international law in general, and the relevant U.N. bodies, in particular. But without the proper analysis of these increasingly sophisticated dependency governance models, a number of territories have been convinced themselves that their political inequality is somehow an acceptable form of democratic governance. This is the tragic outcome of the failure to implement decolonisation resolutions. 

Ironically, a proactive approach on the part of the U.N. bureaucracy might increase the likelihood that the Administering Powers would return to the negotiating table. But the U.N.'s current cautious approach to decolonisation serves only to ensure more 'repetition of process'  and lack of accountability in respect of implementation.   

A review of the plan of action of the Second and Third Decades to see what has been mandated - and simultaneously ignored- is instructive. Such mandated actions include the conduct of a genuine review of the contemporary colonial arrangements of the seventeen territories on its list, the development of political education programmes to heighten the awareness of the people of the options available to them, and the production of a substantive report on U.N. system implementation of the Decolonisation Declaration - as opposed to the current, infrequent compilation of responses from a few member States (and fewer U.N. agencies) to requests for information from the Secretary-General. 

Perhaps the adoption of these latest U.N. resolutions reaffirming the international legal commitment contained in the U.N. Charter "to foster strict respect for those purposes and principles" will result in a renewed focus on implementation of the decolonisation mandate. After all, the international legal recognition of the "self-determination of peoples" now has been reaffirmed by the General Assembly, and remains very much a contemporary human rights issue - not only according to the U.N. Charter, but also as a critical component of the various human rights instruments.

Thus, the resolutions adopted by the General Assembly last December represent a reiteration of the decolonisation roadmap. But they will only be operationalised if the U.N.'s method of work is modernised to facilitate in depth examination of the contemporary colonial arrangements through interactive dialogue, rather than the continued five minute statements made by speakers to the U.N. committees with little time for substantial elaboration on the 'sensitive' issues impeding the decolonisation process. Issues like the effects of nuclear testing (French Polynesia), seizure of the territory's natural resources (French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Guam), use of territories for military activities (Guam), and abolition of elected governments (Turks and Caicos Islands) come to mind as clear violations of the decolonisation mandate.  

Non-Self-Governing Territories

 (territories formally listed by the United Nations)
Western Sahara PDF document2266,000300,653531,000
Anguilla PDF documentUnited Kingdom9692,17815,500
Bermuda PDF documentUnited Kingdom57450,37062,000
British Virgin Islands PDF documentUnited Kingdom15380,11728,103
Cayman Islands PDF documentUnited Kingdom264119,13755,500
Falkland Islands (Malvinas) PDF documentUnited Kingdom12,173550,8722,500
Montserrat PDF documentUnited Kingdom1037,5825,000
St. Helena PDF documentUnited Kingdom3101,641,2945,396
Turks and Caicos Islands PDF documentUnited Kingdom948154,06831,458
United States Virgin Islands PDF documentUnited States35233,744106,405
Gibraltar PDF documentUnited Kingdom5.8n/a29,752
American Samoa PDF documentUnited States200404,39155,519
French Polynesia PDF documentFrance4,0004,767,242271,000
Guam PDF documentUnited States540214,059159,358
New Caledonia PDF documentFrance18,5751,422,543252,000
Pitcairn PDF documentUnited Kingdom35.5800,00050
Tokelau PDF documentNew Zealand12.2318,9901,411
1. From United Nations Secretariat 2013 working papers, United Nations Data, and the Sea Around Us project.
2. On 26 February 1976, Spain informed the Secretary-General that as of that date it had terminated its presence in the Territory of the Sahara and deemed it necessary to place on record that Spain considered itself thenceforth exempt from any responsibility of any international nature in connection with the administration of the Territory, in view of the cessation of its participation in the temporary administration established for the Territory. In 1990, the General Assembly reaffirmed that the question of Western Sahara was a question of decolonization which remained to be completed by the people of Western Sahara.
3. A dispute exists between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). (see ST/CS/SER.A/42)
Source: UN.ORG

In fact, the curious omissions of key issues in U.N. resolutions on decolonisation, and the continual repetition of of the same language year after year, strongly suggests a subtle influence of an unseen hand facilitated by the behind the scenes "informal cooperation" with the effect of the omission of the 'sensitive' issues from the U.N. discussion. If such back-stage maneuvering is "how the U.N. works" - as one small State diplomat lamented -  then serious change is in order. 


Such is the state of play in decolonisation at the U.N. in 2016. As the U.N. proceeds with all deliberate speed to consider its decolonisation agenda for the year, the repetition of process and lack of implementation of the self-determination mandate continues to be its "achilles heel." It is hoped that those member States which stand on principle will raise some of these fundamental questions referenced above, and insist upon the necessary procedural changes to bring about the much needed accountability. This would do the people of the territories a great service in the process. For it is the lack of change which has caused many in the territories to feel that their decolonisation is no longer considered a priority by the member States, resulting in their making difficult compromises to "colonial accommodation." 

The wider U.N. system has a critical role to play in moving this issue forward by simply paying more attention to what they are mandated to do in assisting the territories pursuant to U.N. resolutions and human rights conventions. Accordingly, contemporary self-determination and consequent decolonisation should be added to the agendas of the respective human rights review mechanisms such as the Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and other relevant bodies. Such recommendations should be reflected in the 2016 General Assembly's decolonisation resolutions, as well, accompanied with a strict procedure for assessing accountability.  


SEE: Cautious U.N. procedures are impeding the decolonization process


As U.N. decolonisation resolutions have repeatedly stated, innovative methods are necessary to bring about a true process of self-determination leading to genuine decolonisation for the peoples of the remaining NSGTs.This was the very reason why the General Assembly in 1990 adopted the first International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (IDEC). Twenty-five 25 years later is a good historical point to take stock of progress made, if any; to identify the obstacles to implementation; and to develop real solutions to give substance to the principles of the U.N. Charter that continue to remain sacred to the very essence of the United Nations as it commemorates its 70 years of existence.