16 May 2008

U.N. Secretary-General Declares Decolonisation ‘Incomplete’

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared that “the monumental task (of decolonisation) is as yet complete.” In a message read on his behalf to a Pacific intergovernmental meeting of the Special Committee on Decolonisation which convened in Bandung, Indonesia from 15th to 17th May, the Secretary-General said that “colonialism has no place in today’s world,” and “urge(d) all administering powers to actively engage with the United Nations in discharging the U.N. mandate on decolonisation.” The Secretary General’s message went on to “encourage all parties to continue working together to complete the decolonisation process in every one of the remaining 16 non self-governing territories.”

As the statement from the Secretary-General was being read, it was reported that a group of students from West Papua were demonstrating outside the conference site in favour of the re-inscription of that territory on United Nations List of Non Self-Governing Territories.

Regional Meetings on Decolonisation

The annual intergovernmental meetings on decolonisation are held by the Special Committee on Decolonisation during alternating years in United Nations member countries in the Caribbean and Pacific regions, respectively. The sessions are funded through the UN regular budget and attended by a representative portion of UN member states of the Special Committee as chosen by the various regional groups. Participants also include representatives from some of the 16 territorial governments formally listed by the UN as non self-governing, along with several non-governmental organisations. Others are invited in their individual capacity, as identified by the U.N. Secretariat.

In the 1990s, representative groups from territories not on the U.N. list were permitted to observe the proceedings without directly participating. In recent years, however, this practice was ended at the behest of some administering powers who did not want any recognition of the colonial nature of territories under their administration. A number of these territories had been prematurely removed from the UN list in the past.

The rather unusual rules of procedure for these regional meetings provide that only the UN member states of the Special Committee are permitted to serve on the Drafting Committee which agrees the final report of the meeting based on the text provided by the Secretariat. In past conferences, this draft text has often omitted certain views considered adverse to the position of some member states. In some cases, recommendations have been included in the report on issues that were never discussed at the meeting. The report is ultimately adopted by the Special Committee at UN Headquarters where the text is discussed, and often further amended by UN member states who may or may not have attended the regional meeting.

These meetings were originally conceived as part of the Plan of Action (POA) of the First International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (1991-2000) adopted by the UN General Assembly. The sessions were meant as a good faith effort to bring all of the parties to the table for frank and open discussions aimed at accelerating the decolonisation process. The meetings were also an activity contained in the POA of the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, which was identical to the POA of the first International Decade, because of the limited implementation of the earlier recommendations.

An assessment on the POA of the First International Decade, and a mid-term review of the Second International Decade were presented by an international expert at previous regional meetings of the Special Committee. These assessments were published by the journal Overseas Territories Report, and are available upon request to: overseasreview@yahoo.com.

The meeting venue of Bandung was the site of the formation of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) which served to intensify and organise the global effort to end colonialism in most of Africa, and Asia, and major parts of the Caribbean and Pacific. Amid the lack of implementation of UN General Assembly decolonisation resolutions, it was hoped that the historical importance of the venue would serve to stimulate an otherwise dormant UN system to undertake methods to re-start a “stalled” decolonisation process, as it has been characterised by the UN Office of International Oversight Services (OIOS).

Concerns have been expressed, however, that the “repetition of process,” which characterises the contemporary UN treatment of the matter, would contribute to UN “decolonisation fatigue” leading to what many fear as an attempt to legitimise the present colonial arrangements, for expediency. The aim of this approach is said to be the ultimate removal of the territories from the UN list – not by achieving a full measure of self-government, but rather by changing the definition of self-government. Sadly, the UN continues to skillfully avoid undertaking the case-by-case review process for each territory – a mechanism annually adopted by the UN General Assembly - to assess the dynamics of the present colonial arrangements in each territory.

Amid the limitations, some participants in past regional decolonisation sessions have succeeded in inserting some provisions that reflect contemporary decolonisation concerns in the meeting report. The 2006 Pacific Decolonisation Meeting had relevant provisions to this effect:

As long as administering powers exercise unilateral authority to make laws and other regulations affecting the Non Self-Governing Territories without their consent, pursuant to such methods as legislation, orders in council and other methods, a territory should not be considered self-governing.

There is no alternative to the principle of self-determination which is also a fundamental human right.

The inalienable rights of the people of the Non Self-Governing Territories must be guaranteed by the United Nations and the Special Committee in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations, and Resolutions 1514 (XV) and 1541 (XV) of 15 December 1960.

The UN should develop a programme to disseminate information with the aim of raising public awareness in the territories in order to heighten people’s understanding of the legitimate political status options available to them in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions, including the 1960 (Decolonisation) Declaration.

All Non Self-Governing Territories should be given access to relevant United Nations programmes in the economic and social sphere, including those emanating from the plans of action of the major summits and conferences, in furtherance of capacity-building and consistent with the necessary preparation for the attainment of as full measure of full internal self-government.

Some of this language is later contained in the General Assembly resolutions. The 2007 Caribbean Decolonisation meeting for the Caribbean held in Grenada included similar provisions, identical in most cases with 2006 (and earlier). There were also a few new “qualifying” considerations which appear to have been inserted to support attempts at the legitimisation of “colonialism by consent,” or “voluntary colonialism.” These qualifiers included:

• Reference to the “view of some meeting participants on the need to consider the adoption of new thinking on decolonisation within the context of the current global realities.”

• Reference to what was described as “the array of legitimate transitions to self-determination, provided that the people of a territory have the opportunity to make a full and informed choice.”

This language is vague enough to be rendered meaningless, but there is no doubt as to the intention of its inclusion. It will be interesting to see whether the recommendations from the 2008 seminar will also contain these references, or whether the spirit of Bandung will generate recognition of the significance of their negative implications. A full analysis of the recommendations of the Bandung decolonisation meeting is forthcoming upon its conclusion.