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Regional Decolonization Seminar Addresses Pacific and Other Non-Self-Governing Territories outside Caribbean, United Nations Role in Providing Assistance

14 May 2009
General AssemblyGA/COL/3189
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

SAINT KITTS AND NEVIS, 13 May ‑‑ During the second day of its work in Saint Kitts and Nevis today, the Regional Seminar on the Implementation of the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (2001-2010) took up the challenges and opportunities in the process of decolonization in the Non-Self-Governing Territories outside the Caribbean, and considered the role of the United Nations system in providing them with development assistance.

The three-day event is part of the work of the General Assembly’s Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which is also known as the Special Committee of 24 on Decolonization.  Conducted within the framework of the Second Decade, the seminar provides an opportunity for representatives of Non-Self-Governing Territories, administering Powers, United Nations Member States, regional and non-governmental organizations, and experts, to hold a frank and lively discussion on the issues of decolonization.

The first meeting today was devoted to the process of decolonization of the Non-Self-Governing Territories in the Pacific region and other Territories, including follow-up to the Pacific Regional Seminar, which was held in Indonesia last year.  Following a comparative assessment of the constitutional exercise in American Samoa and United States Virgin Islands, the seminar considered ways of advancing the decolonization process in Saint Helena, Falkland Islands (Malvinas), Western Sahara and Gibraltar.

As the participants considered the role of the United Nations in providing assistance to Non-Self-Governing Territories this afternoon, a representative of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) spoke about the Commission’s relationship with Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos and the United States Virgin Islands.  Also presented to the seminar was a discussion paper of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which provided a summary of that Programme’s support to Non-Self-Governing Territories in the Caribbean.

Decolonization Challenges and Opportunities

At the opening of the meeting, its Chairman, R.M. MARTY M. NATALEGAWA of Indonesia drew the participants’ attention to written statements by Tokelau and its administering Power, New Zealand, which reflected the most recent developments in that Non-Self-Governing Territory.

Mr. Natalegawa said that Tokelau had gone through the process of two self-determination referenda, which were inconclusive.  At the same time, New Zealand had extended its full and exemplary cooperation to the Special Committee.  Former Chairman of the Committee, Ambassador Robert G. Aisi of Papua New Guinea, had participated in both referendums as an observer.

The first speaker of the day, TREGENZA A. ROACH of the University of the United States Virgin Islands made a presentation on the constitutional exercise in American Samoa and United States Virgin Islands, outlining the differences and similarities between the two.  In the case of American Samoa, there was no Organic Act passed by the United States Congress, which formally set forth a system of government, although there was already a local constitution, which satisfied that purpose and provided a certain measure of self-government.  The political leadership of American Samoa had spoken on the need for constitutional reform, and the public dialogue had already begun to connect the issues of status and constitutional reform.

The United States Virgin Islands, he said, was attempting to adopt a local constitution, with the aim of increasing local self-government. The federal law, which authorized the preparation of the constitution of the Virgin Islands, stressed that it was to be carried out in the framework of an unincorporated territory of the United States.  Many in the Territory had argued that the status issue should be determined prior to the constitution’s adoption.  However, locally adopted constitutions developed within the existing territorial status still left the peoples of the Territories “in limbo” ‑‑ neither self-governing, nor fully integrated with all the rights and privileges of citizens of the administering Power.

He went on to describe a public education project, which the University of the Virgin Islands had undertaken to inform residents about the Constitutional Convention and possible outcomes of its work. One of the project’s recommendations was that administering Powers, such as the United States, should provide financial support for endeavours to bring about additional self-government to the Territories.

In the case of the United States Virgin Islands, there was no widespread public interest in a local constitution, he continued.  Even when the project was completed, only 21 per cent of the eligible electorate had voted in the elections for delegates to the Convention.  In view of that experience, American Samoa must offer an intense programme of public information, if it was to be successful in gaining public appreciation, support and participation in the constitutional review. He also suggested that American Samoa might attempt some polling of its population to gauge interest and readiness to engage in constitutional and status-related exercises.

“In many instances we skirt the issue of status because it will require that we make difficult choices,” he added. Both the United States Virgin Islands and American Samoa had become increasingly reliant on financial assistance from the United States, and it seemed unlikely that there existed any substantial sentiment favouring political independence from the administering Power.  Another aspect of the issue related to the equality of bargaining power with regard to the Territories, whose economies were intricately connected with that of the United States.

Several speakers in the ensuing debate emphasized the importance of education and awareness-raising efforts in the decolonization process.  The people of Non-Self-Governing Territories needed to be aware of the fact that decolonization issues affected them and were connected to such aspects of everyday life as unemployment and economic hardship, one participant said.  Talk about independence might seem abstract to the people on the ground, and it was important to find ways to connect that abstract concept to the problems they encountered on a daily basis.

The Special Committee could never assume that the public was sufficiently informed about the decolonization process, another participant ventured.  That consideration should be seriously taken into account in its future work.  It was important to reflect on the role of universities, the media and regional organizations in that regard.

Another participant said that the role of the United Nations and the Special Committee was to look after the rights of Non-Self-Governing Territories, serving as an umpire in the processes of internal constitutional reform.  Should an administering Power reject the will of the people of a Non-Self-Governing Territory, the United Nations position should prevail.  It was also important to educate people on their rights and establish clear criteria for determining the point at which independence was achieved.

An observer from Gibraltar, JOSEPH BOSSANO, said that under the terms of reference established for the Second Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, progress achieved in each Non-Self-Governing Territory should be assessed, including in Gibraltar.  The population of the Territory considered itself a separate people with its own identity, under colonial rule and entitled to decolonization through the exercise of self-determination.  The United Kingdom’s representative said the Territory had exercised self-determination in voting in the referendum on the modernization of the constitution.  Should that be true, the Territory had been decolonized and had a new international status, and the reporting requirement under Article 73e of the Charter no longer existed.

He said Spain’s position was that the issue was a bilateral dispute over a piece of land, and the will of the people was irrelevant.  The United Kingdom and Gibraltar rejected that view.  There had been no bilateral negotiations between Spain and the United Kingdom, as the latter had promised that it would not resume such talks without Gibraltar’s prior consent, which was not forthcoming.   Spain stated that sovereignty could not be discussed in the tripartite forum, because the matter was between Spain and the United Kingdom.  On that point, he agreed with Spain, but for a different reason:  the matter could not be discussed, because Spain had no say on Gibraltar’s sovereignty.   Spain could not be allowed to interfere with the process of decolonization, which had to be completed in every single Non-Self-Governing Territory to eradicate colonialism.

TONY GREEN, Legislative Councillor from Saint Helena, said that a rapid decrease in the island’s population from over 6,000 to some 4,000 was central to its current predicament.  There was no industry to speak of, and there were no natural resources.  The Territory’s key “export” was its people, which were creating a very serious problem.  With many young and middle-aged people leaving, a high percentage of the population was elderly, and the Territory thus had insufficient human resources.

“We do not have a sovereignty issue with Britain,” he said, adding that Saint Helena did not wish to be decolonized in the sense that it neither could have, nor wanted, independence.  Saint Helena sought the support of the Special Committee to urge the United Kingdom to assist the island in two particular areas:  the people of the Territory wished to have a new partnership with Britain, believing strongly that they should not be categorized as a British Overseas Territory and should rather be considered as a part of that country; and Britain should immediately fulfil its repeated promises to build an airport on the island, which was needed to generate the tourism industry and support the island’s economy.  It was also necessary to clarify the relationship between Saint Helena and its two dependencies, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha.

An examination of the new relationship with Britain a few years ago by the Citizenship Committee of Saint Helena had indicated that the relationship that might best serve Saint Helena’s interest was similar to that enjoyed by Saint Pierre et Miquelon.  However, any preferred option would have to emerge from a process of full consultation.

AHMED BOUKHARI, Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front), outlined the history of Western Sahara’s quest for independence as the last African colonial case on the Special Committee’s agenda, saying that in the early 1970s, Morocco had supported the consensus on the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination.  Following the Madrid Accords with Spain of 1975, Morocco invaded the Territory, and had continued to occupy it since, in violation of numerous United Nations resolutions.

Turning to the current situation, he said that the Frente Polisario had never reneged on its commitments vis-à-vis the Security Council since the approval of the settlement plan in 1991.  Of late, it had given its support to the appointment of Christopher Ross as the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy.  The Frente Polisario did not prejudge the decision to which the Saharawi people were legitimately entitled with regard to their future, by choosing between being an independent nation and a territory integrated into Morocco.  Nevertheless, its unwavering position was that the Saharawi people must be consulted about their future in a free and transparent manner, and the options of independence, integration or free association must be respected.

The two parties should negotiate in good faith and without preconditions a political solution that must ensure the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, as requested by the Security Council and General Assembly, he said.  That approach was reflected in the proposal submitted by the Frente Polisario to the Security Council in April 2007.

Stressing the need to ensure respect for human rights, without exceptions, he added that Western Sahara was a Territory under a decolonization process that had been brutally interrupted by Morocco’s invasion and illegal occupation.  He also emphasized his people’s right to sovereignty over the natural resources of the Territory.  Taking into account relevant resolutions and principles of international law, any activity or exploitation, commercialization and trade affecting those natural resources by Morocco was illegal.

CINTHIA ECHAVARRIA ( Argentina) said that the distinctive feature of the question of the Malvinas Islands related to the fact that the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples had been adopted in defence of peoples subjected to or subjugated by a colonial Power.  In the Malvinas case, there was, indeed, a colonial Power, the United Kingdom, but there was no subjugated population.  That population had been expelled at the time of the invasion in 1833 and subsequently replaced by British citizens.

She said the Question of the Malvinas Islands related to a sovereignty dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom.  It was clear that there was no third party to that dispute.  The United Kingdom systematically refused to sit down with Argentina at the negotiating table, arguing that it would not do so until the inhabitants of the Territory so “wished”.  It thus eluded compliance with the international community’s mandate to discuss sovereignty with Argentina by seeking to introduce the inhabitants it had transplanted on the Islands as a party to a discussion.

Putting an end to the colonial situation resulting from the British occupation of the Malvinas, South Georgias and the South Sandwich Islands by blunt application of the principle of self-determination would result in a paradox, for it would actually crystallize a colonial situation derived from the act of usurpation by force, thus disrupting the territorial integrity of Argentina, she continued.  Moreover, it would run contrary to the call of the United Nations for Argentina and the United Kingdom to sit down and discuss sovereignty.  Her country was willing to resume negotiations with the United Kingdom, with a view to finding a solution to the sovereignty dispute, as requested by the United Nations.

ALBERTO VIRELLA (Spain) said that the situation of Gibraltar related to Spain’s national unity and territorial integrity, and the General Assembly, by its resolution 1514 (XV), had pointed out that there should be compatibility between the principle of self-determination of peoples and the principle of territorial integrity of States.  Furthermore, the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, accepted both by the United Kingdom and Spain, had established the future of Gibraltar, leaving only two options for the Territory:  to remain British or to return to Spain.  That meant that Spain’s consent was required for any change in Gibraltar’s international status.  He also addressed the question of the Isthmus, not ceded to the United Kingdom under the Utrecht Treaty, or ever since.

He recalled that the United Nations mandate concerning Gibraltar invited the United Kingdom and Spain to find a negotiated solution, taking into account the interests of the population of the colony.  His Government was willing to resume the bilateral talks, known as the Brussels Process, but the United Kingdom had consistently ignored Spain’s appeals to resume conversations.

The assertions that the new constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom constituted a “modern, non-colonial relationship which results in Gibraltar no longer being a colony” opposed fundamental United Nations principles concerning decolonization.  Gibraltar’s new Constitutional Order, granted by the United Kingdom in 2006, did not entail any change in the colony’s international status, which remained a Non-Self-Governing Territory.  “Colonialism by consent” did not mean that the resulting political arrangements were any less colonial.  Moreover, the new constitutional text did not affect the legal validity of the Treaty of Utrecht.  His Government was also opposed to any attempt to remove Gibraltar from the United Nations list of “territories that are undergoing the decolonization process”.  That decision could only be taken by the General Assembly.

The Forum for Dialogue on Gibraltar did not replace the Brussels Process, as was clearly expressed in the statement made jointly by the Governments of the United Kingdom, Spain and Gibraltar on 16 December 2004, he said.  As for the latest developments in the Forum, the agreements reached were being implemented so as to contribute to creating favourable conditions that would allow for a resolution of the questions of sovereignty separately, at an appropriate time, in the Brussels Process.  New areas of work included maritime communications; environmental cooperation; judicial, customs and police cooperation; financial services and taxation; visas; and education.  Those agreements aimed at benefiting the people of Gibraltar and the surrounding region and, therefore, his Government was willing to continue its efforts for one more year.

Following a lengthy exchange on procedural issues, KHADDAD EL MOUSSAOUI ( Morocco) presented a statement in Spanish, with the English translation distributed to the participants.  The presentation elaborated on the history on the question and stated that by 2000, the Secretary-General had come to the conclusion that after nine years of efforts, it was not possible to apply entirely the main provisions of the 1991 settlement plan, except for the ceasefire, because of the difference of view between the parties regarding the meaning given to the main provisions of the plan.  The Security Council and the Secretary-General had recommended searching for a “third way”, with no winner and no loser, to get out of the deadlock.   Morocco had proposed a status of large autonomy, which would allow the Saharawis to manage their own political and economic affairs within the sovereignty, the national unity and territorial integrity of Morocco.

He noted that the autonomy proposal had been elaborated within the framework of the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), and was considered serious and credible by a large majority of countries, the Secretary-General and the Security Council.  The Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy, Peter Van Walsum, in his report dated 18 March 2008, had stated that Western Saharan independence was not a realistic solution.  Under the autonomy proposal, Morocco guaranteed to all the Saharawis, whether outside or inside the Territory, their full rights without discrimination or exclusion.  The status of autonomy resulting from negotiations would be submitted for another consultation to concerned populations, through a referendum.   Morocco was asking the other parties to take the opportunity to start a new chapter in the history of the region.

He added that the Polisario Front was not the sole representative of the Saharawis.  Moreover, the Polisario and Algeria should raise the blockade to which they had submitted the Saharawis in the Tindouf camps in the south of Algeria.  “We do not have the right to let a new generation of desperate persons grow up in this region, in the south of Algeria, in the north of Mauritania and in the north of Mali,” he said.  The consequences were disastrous and dangerous:  arms and drugs trafficking; trafficking in human beings; and creation of home for terrorists, as had been the case recently in the south of Algeria, where one Al-Qaida entity had been constituted.

Regarding the role of Algeria, he said that because of geopolitical reasons related to the cold war, that country had always been against the achievement of the territorial integrity by Morocco, he said.  Since 1976, Algeria had sponsored the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic on the Algerian territory.  It had also tried to mobilize certain countries to recognize that false entity, which did not have any attribute of a sovereign State.  The ensuing war had not brought positive results for the Saharawi people, Algeria, Morocco, or the international community.

SOFIANE BERRAH ( Algeria) said that his country remained concerned that Western Sahara was still an issue of incomplete decolonization, and its people had not yet been allowed to exercise their basic democratic right to decide their own future.  After more than 100 resolutions and an opinion of the International Court of Justice, the Saharawi people had never been allowed to exercise their right to self-determination through a referendum.  In rejecting it, Morocco, the occupying Power, had not even attempted to explain why that democratic solution was not viable.

He also expressed concern regarding ongoing human rights violations in Western Sahara.  Since last year, two reports by an ad hoc European Parliament field team and Human Rights Watch had strongly recommended the establishment of a monitoring mechanism to assess the human rights situation on the ground.   Morocco, with the help of powerful members of the Security Council, had persisted in rejecting that proposal.

On the negotiation process between Morocco and the Polisario Front, he said that the Security Council had consistently reiterated its call to both parties to enter into negotiations without preconditions and in good faith, but Morocco had repeatedly stated that it would not negotiate anything other than autonomy, on the false assumption that Western Sahara was already part of the territory of Morocco.  The United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the African Union and a broad consensus within the international community, even among Morocco’s closest friends and allies, had long rejected that allegation.

The way forward for the last African colony lay with the United Nations, he said.  The statement of the sole legitimate representative of the people of Western Sahara at the seminar carried a significant message that all that Western Sahara people needed was to have an opportunity to express their will in a free and fair referendum.

He also commented upon Morocco’s allegations that Algeria had created the Polisario Front, saying that Polisario had grown from the earlier anti-colonial struggle that had long pre-dated the establishment of the independent Algerian State.  The representative of Morocco had attempted to portray Algeria “as the bad guy”, but his country had not even gotten seriously involved in the issue until after the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara in 1975.  No country in the world, not even Morocco’s allies, recognized its sovereignty over Sahara, which was still, de jure, under Spanish control.  The transfer of power to Morocco under the Madrid Agreement had no legal validity and, indeed, the United Nations had never recognized it.  As for the claim that the Polisario-administered refugee camps in Algeria were potential recruiting grounds for Al-Qaida, the Polisario Front was a secular nationalist organization and its people were characterized by a liberal interpretation of Islam.  Alienating the Polisario Front was not a recipe for creating trust and mutual respect, which were needed to continue the negotiation process under United Nations auspices.

Role of United Nations System

As the seminar turned to the role of the United Nations system in providing developmental assistance to Non-Self-Governing Territories, RONALD WILLIAMS, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), spoke about the active relationship of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos and the United States Virgin Islands with the Commission’s subregional headquarters for the Caribbean.  Those Territories regularly participated in ECLAC-sponsored activities in their capacity as Associate Members of the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee.  They had also been afforded the opportunity to participate in the global forums of the United Nations system and the work of the Economic and Social Council.

In an attempt to address the concerns of those Territories in the context of the rapid pace of globalization, the subregional headquarters had recently prepared several studies, which provided analysis on the key issues confronting the Territories, he continued.  It had also held meetings for Associate Member countries.  Several Non-Self-Governing Territories had benefited from the technical services of ECLAC’s disaster assessment team, following a series of recent hurricanes and tropical storms.  For example, at the request of the Cayman Islands, technical support had been provided in the conduct of a macro socio-economic assessment of the damage and losses caused by Hurricane Paloma this year.

MICHAEL M. STREITZ, Senior Political Affairs Officer, Decolonization Unit, United Nations Department of Political Affairs, presented the UNDP discussion paper, which provided a summary of that Programme’s support to Non-Self-Governing Territories in the Caribbean.  UNDP’s subregional office in Barbados and Jamaica provided assistance to several Caribbean Non-Self-Governing Territories.

UNDP’s main areas of support related to technical assistance and policy advice in the areas of macroeconomic, financial and fiscal management, economic statistics, disaster mitigation and resettlement and recovery programmes, as well as capacity-building and environmental sustainability, he noted.  The Programme also provided non-project support to several other initiatives in the Non-Self-Governing Territories, often in collaboration with Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and as part of integrated regional initiatives.  For example, in Montserrat, UNDP had supported efforts in poverty reduction and social sector development, including in the establishment of a child health database and in monitoring progress on achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  Following the volcanic eruptions in the 1990s, disaster recovery had been provided to Montserrat.  Support was also provided in the areas of capacity-building for disaster risk reduction, early warning and climate change.

In the British Virgin Islands, he said support was given through subregional and regional projects, in such areas as capacity development in statistics, poverty reduction and monitoring of the Millennium Development Goals.  Through OECS, and with additional funding from the Government of the British Virgin Islands, UNDP had been successfully implementing a community risk reduction initiative to reduce the danger from landslides.   Anguilla had benefited mainly through regional initiatives, with UNDP support, in such areas as capacity-building, data collection and analysis.  UNDP had also provided Anguilla with assistance in financial sector supervision and risk management.  Last August, UNDP Jamaica had fielded two missions to the Turks and Caicos Islands, including a team to support immediate relief after Hurricane Ike.

The speaker added that information on the work of the broader United Nations system vis-à-vis the Non-Self-Governing Territories was published annually in a report submitted to the Economic and Social Council.  He also drew attention to the brochure entitled “What the United Nations Can Do to Assist Non-Self-Governing Territories”.  He also referred to UNDP’s work in the Pacific region, in particular in Tokelau.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, speakers wanted to know more about the impact of the Organization’s cooperation projects and assistance programmes in various Non-Self-Governing Territories.  They also insisted on the need to disseminate information regarding the parameters for the Territories’ participation in United Nations bodies, in particular ECLAC.  A participant suggested that the Special Committee should explore ways of encouraging UNDP and other agencies to participate in its seminars.

There was a scope and capacity for Non-Self-Governing Territories to join various international organizations and specialized agencies as observers and associate members, another speaker said, stressing the importance of providing information on the available options to those involved. In particular, he emphasized the role of ECLAC, which not only provided assistance to countries and initiated capacity-building projects, but also facilitated their access to the wider United Nations system.  Continued direct assistance from such organizations as UNDP was said to be of great importance.

A representative of the World Health Organization (WHO)/Pan-American Health Organization spoke about efforts to improve the health infrastructure and fight diseases in the Caribbean, including in the Non-Self-Governing Territories.  She also outlined the pandemic preparedness activities in the region.

The Chief Minister of Montserrat expressed gratitude to UNDP for its assistance to the Territory after the volcanic eruptions and suggested that the Programme could also provide advice on constitutional reform to the Non-Self-Governing Territories.  Also needed was a full programme of education in relation to decolonization and financing missions from countries other than the administering Powers to fill the gaps.

Also raised in the discussion was the need to provide assistance to non-governmental organizations active in the area of decolonization, to strengthen capacity-building programmes for the Non-Self-Governing Territories and to involve women in the decolonization process.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.