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The South Atlantic: Looking Ahead

A conference organised by the South Atlantic Council on 15 April 2011

The views expressed below were those of the speaker. None of the presentations are endorsed by the Council.

The UN Decolonisation Committee and Self-Determination

By Alastair Forsyth

In 1960, the United Nations, referring to their founding Charter, issued a "Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples" (Resolution 1514 (XV)). In 1961 the UN created a Special Committee to speed up the process of change. It is referred to sometimes as the Special Committee on Decolonisation, sometimes as the Special Committee of 24. (It began with 17 members and was enlarged to 24 members in 1962. It now has 29 members.) Already by this time the decolonisation process was well under way. In the first decades after 1961 more than 80 territories achieved independence, and a few more had achieved "free association" status or integration.

What does the Decolonisation Committee now do? It continues to meet once a year in New York for a two- to three-week session, and holds an annual regional seminar, the last in 2010 in Noumea, New Caledonia. But for the past decade it has achieved nothing. After ten years there are still sixteen non-self-governing territories on its list. The last colonies to gain independence were Palau in 1994 and East Timor in 2002. (Palau was not even on the Special Committee's list, but was a former UN Trust Territory, with a population of 20,000.)

Who are the sixteen? Ten are British, two of these in the South Atlantic, the Falklands and St. Helena. Three are US territories, one is French and one administered by New Zealand. The remaining one is the Western Sahara, from which Spain, the administering power, withdrew in 1975. All except Western Sahara are in stable, pragmatic relationships. Any of the British territories can opt for independence, or free association with another state. The three US territories are content with their lot. The French territory is committed to holding a referendum, after 2014, to decide on independence or maintaining the link with France.

The oddity in the list is Tokelau three circles of islands in the mid-Pacific, with a population of 1500, less than the Falklands. There is almost no crime, no prison and the normal punishment is by rebuke. (Think what would Britain save if it adopted the Tokelau system!). Its highest point is 5 metres above sea level. The latest tsunami was expected to reach 10 metres in Honolulu, (slightly to the East of Tokelau) but in the event it rose only two to four metres. Tokelau is a vulnerable small territory. New Zealand has been the administering power since 1926. The Decolonisation Committee has pressed this little community to change status. There have been two UN backed referenda, in 2006 and 2007. Much to the frustration of the Committee, on both occasions the two-thirds majority required to change the status quo was not reached. The Committee continues to allocate disproportionate time to Tokelau.

This is close to lunacy. The decolonisation process has ended. The UN should recognise the fact. It should declare mission complete and dissolve the Committee. It has long outlived its usefulness. Instead, in December last year, the Committee met in Algeria to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1960 declaration, and unbelievably dedicated itself to a new decade of decolonisation, focusing on the challenge of the remaining non-self-governing territories. (One of these I should remind you, even smaller than Tokelau, is Pitcairn, with its population at last count of 48).

What is the relevance of all this to the South Atlantic?

In 1965, when the colonial powers submitted to the Decolonisation Committee their list of non-self-governing territories, the UK included the Falkland Islands. At the conference in Geneva which met to consider the list the Uruguayan delegate pointed out that Argentina disputed the British claim to the Islands. Argentina seized this totally unexpected opportunity to make their case in an international forum. They argued, as they have done ever since, that territorial integrity over-rode self-determination. The conference took note of the dispute and in due course the UN General Assembly recommended that the two parties should negotiate a peaceful solution. This was a diplomatic triumph for Argentina. It still resonates. It was the first international judicial recognition of the dispute. The UN did not, however, contrary to what many Argentines believe, support the claim.

The Committee survives. At its annual New York meeting the Argentine delegation is far the largest, and often led by the Foreign Minister. A morning is dedicated to the Falklands, when Islanders and Argentines make their case. The anti-imperialists make their statements. No-one listens. It is a dialogue of the deaf. The session ends with a resolution urging both sides to negotiate a peaceful solution.

I repeat, the Committee has outlived its usefulness. It has done nothing for ten years. It serves only as a platform for Argentina to promote its claim – a claim that does not stand scrutiny and is better described as a land grab. It costs money, at a time when few countries have money to spare. Even Russia, the only European member of the Committee, complains of cost and of over-politicisation.

However today's conference is about practicalities; and the case against closure is that it is simply not practical politics – too complicated, Argentina would never agree to drop the question. I do not accept this. Only a tiny minority of the 192 members of the UN can have any interest in the Committee's survival. It is shameful if the UN is unable to close down a non-functioning committee

It should clearly be UK government policy to seek closure Leaving aside the Falklands issue, which the Committee inflames, it is unacceptable that the Committee permanently brands ten British overseas territories as colonial survivors, and seeks to change their status.

Until now the Foreign Office has stood aside from the Committee, with only a watching brief. New policy guidelines would change this. In any case there may now be good reason for a new stance. The St Lucian chairman of the Committee has been ousted. A chairman from Ecuador, ally of Argentina, has taken his place. One of the two Vice-Chairmen is Cuban, the Rapporteur is Syrian. The Committee is likely to re-double its decolonisation efforts, having recently re-dedicated itself to this task. An obvious target for a Latin American chairman is the Falklands.

A move to dissolution is now more urgent. To make this easier, a case could be made for converting the Committee into a new Special Committee for the protection of the interests of Small States. There are fourteen UN member states with a population of less than 100,000, many of them victims of the decolonisation process. They have no easy access to advanced technologies or medical research and may need help in the face of natural disasters. The General Assembly might well be prepared to support conversion of the existing Committee into another Special Committee with a more appropriate present-day brief.

Closure may be difficult, but we have to try. A General Assembly vote in favour of closure should lead to a change in the language of the claim, and a permanent calming of the Falklands dispute. This in turn might create the conditions, one day, for a sensible solution, to the benefit of all.

An Anglo Argentine recently wrote, for an Argentine audience, that if Argentina lowered its voice and allowed contacts to develop the barriers would slowly fall. "Trade between the two would grow, and with it friendship. Is it so important to "own" the Falklands? What's wrong with friendship? Let the Kelpers live their lives."

That seems sensible to me.

AEF 13 April 2011

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