01 April 2012

Re-examining the role of the United Nations: present and future developments towards self-determination in the Caribbean

Thinking Outside the Narrow United Nations Box: Decolonisation in the Caribbean

This paper was delivered at the "50-50 Caribbean Conference: Surveying the Past, Mapping the Future," convened at the University College of the Cayman Islands.

        22nd March 2012
The right to decolonization is born out of the people’s fundamental supreme human right to self-determination. That right is founded on the principle of government by consent.

The right to self-determination became one of the pillars of the New International Order based on principles, not on power; based on the rule of law, not in particular interests. Since its creation the UN included in its articles the recognition of the right to self-determination of the peoples of the world, to the development of their own governments; to freely establish their political condition and to provide for their economic, social and culture aspects. The right to self-determination is a fundamental right, without which it is impossible to fully enjoy all other rights.

The right of decolonization today or the “rule of law” is found in Article 73 of the UN Charter, the several International Covenants on Human Rights, in multiple resolutions of the UN General Assembly. In 1960 the UN GA adopted Res. 1514(XV) which proclaimed the equality of all nations big and small. It was also clearly established that colonialism is a crime against humanity, a gross violation of human rights. All these instruments reiterate as a principle the inadmissibility of foreign intervention and the protection of the peoples subjected to colonialism and the duty to guarantee the full enjoyment of the right to self-determination and independence.

International law expert Gross Espiell reminds us that under international law colonialism is an international crime typified as such. Therefore, it must be stressed that upon adopting Res. 1514(XV), all titles to territorial sovereignty founded upon dominion are obsolete inasmuch they violate the principle of self-determination of the peoples subjected to colonial foreign domination. As a result all colonial titles which result from the old and obsolete international law have ceased to exist.

Then, what has been, is and should be the role of the international community and its principal organization, the UN, in the past, present and future developments towards self-determination in the Caribbean?

In our effort to seek the answers to this formidable quest certain basic factors should be kept in mind:

First: it is in the Caribbean region where the majority of Non Self Governing Territories (NSGT') exist;

Second: it is in the Caribbean region where the greater diversity in political relations between the administering powers and the territories has been established.

However, can we truly say that the different political status attained have really resulted in an authentic exercises of self- determination? Do these political arrangement comply with the standards and criteria established under UN Resolutions 1514 (XV) and 1541 (XV)? 

As to the territories that have achieved autonomous status, should there be standards and procedures for re-evaluation of territories removed from non-self- governing designation? 

To seek the answers to these questions, the UN should undertake a profound and serious examination of to what extent it has been successful in ensuring true self-determination processes in the existing NSGT and in those that have been removed from the list. Not doing so, would only guarantee the repetition of past errors. The goals of the international community should always be the end of colonialism in all its forms and manifestation. That is what should be accomplished. As long as neo-colonialism, dependency, foreign intervention and military occupation persist, the goals will remain unfulfilled. 

Upon reviewing the general situation in the Caribbean we find that there are there still eight (8) territories listed as Non Self Governing Territories, all under British Rule; Puerto Rico which was delisted in 1953 but has been under review of the UN Special Committee on Decolonization since 1972 with 30 resolutions passed by the Committee, and U. S. Virgin Islands under U.S. dominion; Guadeloupe and Martinique which were integrated by France and the Netherlands Antilles which still are under the Dutch Kingdom dominion; and ten (10) Island nations that have become independent.

If the UN had been successful in truly enforcing the principles and applicable law on self-determination, we wouldn’t have a Caribbean Sea fragmented and occupied by the U.S. and three European powers.

The legality of the claim to territorial titles of the so called” administering powers” which by itself is an euphemism for “imperial power”, cannot be sustained under any of the principles decreed by the UN; rather they are in fact in flagrant violation of the same. Under these principles there is no justification for the physical presence and occupation by four foreign countries in the Caribbean and their intervention over Caribbean territories and waters.

There is nothing in the aforesaid mentioned principles that justify or allow for the UK suspending a constitution, demanding a new constitution and reserving for itself the power to approve it as in the case of Turks and Caico. Neither could there be a pretension of suspending the effectiveness of laws and decisions made by the legitimate representatives of the people of Turks and Caico and other British possessions. Direct Rule should be something left in the dust bins of the history books of the British Empire. 

There is nothing in the aforesaid principles that justify or recognize the legality of the fragmentation of territories which by nature are small in two foreign jurisdictions, like in the case of Saint Martin, based on the claims to titles obtained in the past centuries which should not exist in the 21st. Century.

In fact, when there is what appears to be some progress from colonial rule, like in the case of the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, has a collateral benefit for the Dutch Kingdom of gaining control over 8,300 km. of territorial sea including exclusive maritime zones and economic zones.

The fragmentation of the Caribbean in four foreign jurisdictions, with four official languages imposed over the creoles languages and different currencies, has delayed the natural cooperation and development of the region. Despite these difficulties the peoples of the Caribbean have had the resiliency to maintain a proud, beautiful, diverse and vibrant Caribbean culture and have managed to create important regional organizations like CARICOM and the OECS.

The fact that any peoples have to submit their constitution for approval of a foreign country is contrary to the right to self-determination. For a case on point, the U.S. Virgin IslandS has held five constitutional conventions and has been repeatedly rebuked by the U.S. Government. 

In Puerto Rico, for a third time the U.S. President appointed a Task Force to issue a report on the question of the status of Puerto Rico. For the third time also the task force appointed by the US President, the last one by Pres. Obama, have no representation from the People of Puerto Rico. The three reports reiterate that the sovereignty of Puerto Rico lies in the US Congress. 

This is contrary to the representation that the US Gov. did to the international community in 1953, when they requested to have Puerto Rico taken out of the list of territories, because allegedly Puerto Rico had obtained self-government. The US Gov. then committed themselves to heed any requests that the people of Puerto Rico made to further develop self-government. Yet, despite the reiterated denunciations made before this committee of the US Gov.’s’ refusal to act on Puerto Rico’s request for changes in the relationship, we find no recourse to bring the US Government into compliance.

What mechanisms does the UN have in place to guarantee that the administering power comply with the obligations acquired with the international community? The attempts by a small and economically challenged country like Puerto Rico to request the revision of its situation before the UN GA is hardly feasible since it depends on the availability of a member country willing to confront the US Gov. What are the chances of having a country, other than our sister Republic of Cuba, to do that?

The March 11, 2011, Report of the US President Task Force on the Status of Puerto Rico appointed by Pres. Obama completely ignores international law and the 30 resolutions passed by the UN Committee on Decolonization on the question of Puerto Rico; it denies recognition of our Puerto Rican nationality by denominating us as “U.S. Citizens that reside in the territory”. 

The US denies Puerto Rican nationals living outside Puerto Rico the right to vote in status consultation and rejects our right as peoples to convene ourselves in a status constitutional assembly. The report recommends that consultations be made in two plebiscites, the first one just to ask whether we want to be part of the US or opting for a sovereign status and a second plebiscite amongst the option recognized by them should the people decide to belong to the US. No prior declaration or definition is made of what the US would be willing to accept if the people voted in favor of belonging to the US.

The Government of Puerto Rico has scheduled a plebiscite to be held the same day as the general elections in Puerto Rico. The plebiscite asked as a first question whether the people of Puerto Rico wishes to remain under a territorial status. The second question is to opt between statehood, independence and the Estado Libre Asociado Soberano, whatever that may be. If colonialism is a gross violation of human rights and a crime, no people should be faced with the indignity of being asked if they want to remain under colonial rule.

Today colonialism remains in place without any real attempt on the part of the administering powers to put an end to it. The European and US imperial powers occupied our countries as a result of treatises amongst them, as war booty in the case of Puerto Rico in 1898 after the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American-Cuban War, or through purchase and sale amongst them legalized through treatises like the Treaty of Paris or the Treaty of Versailles. 

That the recognition of these titles be recognized as of today is no different than recognizing the slave owner’s titles of 19th. Century. After all, colonialism is based in a racist conception of the world, is based in the belief that there are some privileged races, peoples and countries that because they happen to be white are better suited to govern.

But what it is really unconscionable is that the UN, having the instruments at hand that have effectively been used in the past to put an end to colonialism, as is mandated by Res. 1514(XV), is still groping with this problem and proclaiming a “Third Decade of Decolonization”.

In the precedential case of Namibia, the UN put a stop to South Africa’s pretensions to integrate Namibia, because, an administering power that has been given a territory in trust to help in its development towards self-government does not have the right to claims over the territory. What, may I ask, is the difference between what South Africa pretended to do and what UK, the Dutch Kingdom, France and the US have been getting away with? 

Are not sophisticated manners of domination as in violation of the right to self-determination of peoples as the ones practiced by South Africa then?

The UN should actively pursue its role of education of the people under colonialism as a minimum objective the international community should aspire to ensure. Education towards freedom of want and fear. Education under the control of a non-interested party like the UN should be a pre-condition to any exercise of self-determination. 

The people under colonialism should not have to choose between political dignity in independence and economic security under colonialism. People under colonialism should not see their aspirations impeded by the fear of economic hardship. Administering powers should guarantee transitional aid as compensation for continued territorial occupation. 

The approach to territorial affairs should be changed from the perspective of the administering power to the perspective of the people under colonialism. Decolonization should be focused primarily on the rights and necessities of the people in the colonial territories. The concern for the interests of the so called administering power should be seen in the light and from the perspective of guaranteeing the interests and the rights of the colonial people as the primary concern. 

The United nations Decolonization Committee as the specialized organism on which the United Nations Organization relies to move the decolonization agenda, must move to a more pro-active, hands-on initiatives to ensure international respect and applications of the principles that ensure the exercise of the right of self-determination of the peoples under non-autonomous and non-self-governing status.

The United Nations in compliance with the mandates of Res. 1514(XV) regarding the total eradication of colonialism should have as main goals and objectives the following:

1. To declare null, void, obsolete and illegal all colonial titles obtained through military occupation, cession amongst foreign powers, purchase and sell amongst foreign powers, because such titles were obtained without consulting the indigenous and native inhabitants and peoples and in violation of existing precepts of international law.

2. Apply the legal precedent established in the case of Namibia to all non-sell-governing territories and call upon the administering powers to prepare those territories for immediate independence.

3. Call upon all administering powers to comply with paragraphs 4, 5 and 6 of Res. 1514(XV) by transferring all powers to the territories, ceasing military intervention and respecting their territorial integrity.

4. Establish accessible and viable mechanisms, not dependent on another member state willingness to help, for the peoples under colonialism in any form to enable them to request review by the UN GA of the agreements and commitments acquired by the so called administering powers with the international community.

5. Discourage any referendum, plebiscite or consultation in the non-self-governing territories and in those who still have not obtained their independence, without proper UN supervision and approval.

6. Organize and distribute immediately educational events and materials for all non-self-governing territories and in those who still have not obtained their independence, for the dissemination of information on technical and financial assistance programs and any other resources necessary to guarantee a swift and orderly transition to independence.

7. Appoint a Negotiating Committee chaired by the President of the Decolonization Committee to ensure that the administering power pay compensation to the peoples they have maintained under colonial rule and to that effect create a fund to guarantee and aid in a swift and orderly transition towards independence.

These I believe should be the role of the United Nations mandated under Res. 1514(XV) in ensuring a truly independent Caribbean Community. I surely hope we don’t have to wait fifty years to attain it.

Wilma E. Reverón-Collazo

Wilma E. Reverón-Collazo is a human rights activist and attorney practicing employment, civil rights and family law in Puerto Rico. She is a member of the Board of Advisors of the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) Puerto Rico National Chapter and past Senior Staff Attorney.

She is a member of the Commission on Constitutional Development of the Puerto Rico Bar Association that is dedicated to the study of the political relationship between the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the United States. She has made numerous appearances before the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization on the question of Puerto Rico and before Caribbean Regional Seminars sponsored by the Committee.

She has delivered papers and participated in conferences at universities, book fairs and seminars related to the decolonization of Puerto Rico, repression and civil rights both in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. She has also made presentations in special tribunals on Human Rights issues such as Vieques and repression in Puerto Rico.

Her articles have appeared in Puerto Rico newspapers such as Claridad and El Nuevo Día and international magazines and publications such as Tricontinental (OSPAAL) and recently in Correos del Orinoco (Venezuela).