Decolonization and Self-determination: Sorting out the Rationales

22 Jul

Editor’s Note:  Anh Van Vo, a Vietnamese national, came to GAPW from the University of Pennsylvania.  She is soon to return to Vietnam and then on to resume her studies in Singapore.  Anh came to the UN with diverse policy interests, but soon became captivated with the work of the “C-24” and carefully followed disputes on territories from Western Sahara to the Malvinas/Falklands. Her reflections on the Committee appear below.

This past June, during meetings of the UN Special Committee (C-24) on Decolonization, blame and accusations sprouted from all parties to conflicts over the status of disputed territories. But one particular indictment was brought up time and again by almost every delegation present: the lack of progress and authority from the Special Committee itself. Indeed, more than 50 years have passed since the creation of the Special Committee, and decolonization situations are far from being resolved.

Aside from the usual tension in these meetings, one aspect that deserves attention is the principle of “self-determination.” This notion has served as a guiding principle for the Decolonization committee since its inception, but as I have observed in the meetings, self-determination is simply not sufficient as the primary rationale for the decolonization process.

On the one hand, self-determination is a lofty ideological tool that has proved necessary and useful in untangling situations in territories such as Tokelau and Turks and Caicos Islands, whose situations seem to be quite straightforward. On the other hand, the situations in some other territories such as Falkland Islands, Puerto Rico, and Gibraltar calls into question the uses—and possible misuses—of “self-determination” as the primary rationale for decolonization.

The situation in Falkland Islands shows the importance of resolving key matters regarding the proper rationale for Committee deliberations and decisions. Representatives from the Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands, Ms. Phyl Rendell and Mr. Michael Summers, insisted that the people of Falklands wish to remain under British rule, citing a 99.8% favor vote in a 2013 referendum. However, significant numbers of members of the Special Committee did not acknowledge the intended impact of this result. Venezuelan Ambassador Rafael Ramirez questioned the credibility of the referendum, especially as it was conducted by the British government and directed towards British citizens living in Falkland Islands. Ambassador Patriota of Brazil reminded the Committee that the current population of the Falklands was a result of British imperialism and the expulsion of the island’s original inhabitants. Argentina blamed the United Kingdom for framing the situation as one of “self-determination” of island residents, while according to UN resolutions this would be better understood as a straightforward matter of colonization.

In this instance, the Special Committee got stuck between a rock and a hard place because of its ill-defined use of “self-determination”. According to the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People in 1960, self-determination is reserved for “all peoples” who are subjected to “alien subjugation, domination and exploitation”, so that they can “freely [choose] to determine their political status […] and economic, social and cultural development.”[1] This declaration assumes that the “peoples” here are the statistical majority. Nevertheless, the situation in Falkland Islands shows that having the majority of the population agree on their preferred political status does not guarantee that the Special Committee will (or even should) honor their decision. Questions that should be addressed based on the Declaration still go unanswered: Must self-determination only include the views of the “majority” to be valid? Does it have to incorporate the voices or special status of minority or aboriginal people?

Even if we pass over these questions, there is still the glaring fact that self-determination of a people does not in and of itself lend authority or legitimacy to the Committee’s functions. As Syria’s Ambassador Bashar Ja’affari stated, none of the 33 resolutions adopted by consensus on the Falkland Islands by the Committee over the years have been implemented. Another example is Puerto Rico: the Committee passed a resolution last June that urges the United States to speed up a process “that would allow the people of Puerto Rico to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination”, but there have been 32 previous resolutions like this and the U.S. has acted on none of them, citing mixed voting results from the population and splits within the Puerto Rican political parties themselves. Perhaps one could say that progress has been slow because Falklands is complicated by the issue of sovereignty and Puerto Rico simply just cannot present a united front. But even if one takes those elements away and presents yet another example, Gibraltar—a case that enjoys overwhelming solidarity among its representatives and is at the same time a clear-cut colonization situation, the Committee still has been unable to find a lasting solution in this instance.

The lack of progress and authority spreads doubt to other aspects of the Committee. First, if “self-determination” rather than colonization is the central principle, why are other places not included in the list of non-self-governing territories, such as Tibet, or Chechnya, or Kashmir? Second, although sending missions to territories is one of the mandates of the Decolonization Committee, there has been no visit to either Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands. The frustrations this lack of visit produces culminated when Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, presented a British Airways first-class ticket to the Chair of the Special Committee right in the decolonization meeting, saying that he was willing to pay for the tickets of other committee members as well, in case there had been logistic mishaps that prevented the Committee from visiting Gibraltar. In response to the Chief Minister’s bold move, the Chair thanked him, agreed to meet with him privately, and said, regarding the ticket, “You know I am not going to use that.”

In the end, “self-determination” seems to be neither a sufficient nor particularly effective principle to guide the work of the Special Committee on decolonization. Either it is blocked by an ambiguous dependence on “the majority”, by ideological rifts in the non-self-governing territories, or it is simply ignored, if not by the colonial powers, then by the Committee itself. Indeed, as Gaël Yanno, President of the Congress of New Caledonia, said in these meetings: “Self-determination does not equal independence.” The Committee would do well to revisit its relationship to this important but limited rationale for promoting what would be a welcome end to the legacy of colonization.

[1] U.N. General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.”

Anh Van Vo, Fellow, GAPW

2 Responses to “Decolonization and Self-determination: Sorting out the Rationales”

  1. Devolverislas July 23, 2015 at 5:59 am #

    Anh Van VO’s excellent piece brings a sharp insight into the limitations both of C24 and of the principle of self-determination. She concludes that “lack of progress and authority” beset the former while the latter is “neither a sufficient nor particularly effective principle …. ”

    In the case of the Falklands/Malvinas it appears that she overlooks one important fact. When the UN General Assembly passed res. 2065 XX in 1965 they pointedly omitted the right of self- determination for the inhabitants. Further these are regarded as a population and not a people.

    The facts regarding the dispute over the sovereignty of the territory have not changed at all over 50 years. That is why a current C 24 visit to the Islands is not necessary.

    Using methods like the 2013 referendum, the Falkland Islanders and the British Government have been very adept at shifting the focus away from the territory per se to the inhabitants. They have been allowed to get away with it for so long because, as Anh identifies, C24 lacks authority.

  2. Sulekha Prasad July 28, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    Great Post Bob! Great distinction between what is as you said ” lofty ideological” and realistic! 🙂

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