Apparently, this is the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, as the UN General Assembly declared last year. I didn’t even know there was a First or Second decade, which have now receded into the immediate past.
Sixteen ‘non self-governing territories’ form the list that occupies this committee’s time – the remnants of the original bursts of decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s. These span the globe, from Western Sahara and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, to Gibraltar, the Falklands and Guam. Kudos to the Associated Press for a little bit of reporting on this dusty corner of the UN machinery:
“The committee is one of the few forums in which colonialism’s last remaining subjects can make themselves heard. Its latest annual meeting, in June, featured voices as disparate as lawmakers from Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, a headman from a cluster of New Zealand-ruled islets, and a spokesman for a Saharan territory that has been fighting for independence for 35 years.
“Some may see the U.N. committee as an anachronism, little noticed by anyone other than those who attend its meetings: two dozen ambassadors of countries with a direct interest in the decolonization process, and representatives of the territories in question.
“But Ahmed Boukhari of the Polisario Front, which seeks the independence of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, says its existence is vital.
“Not only do we need the committee, we need to enhance it,” he told The Associated Press. “For the people of the territories, it’s an essential element in their struggle for self-determination.”
The long history of this committee casts a fascinating light on how new states have been created over the past half century, and how we’ve moved to a world of 193 states. The special committee that takes up this question of decolonization finds its institutional forebears in the League of Nations’ mandates system, and the UN’s trusteeship scheme, but it was the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples that effectively turned independence, or national liberation, into a goal in and of itself, rather than some means to a higher end.
This is the establishment of self-determination as a right, irrespective of the political or economic state of that territory – and self-determination on the basis of colonial boundaries and definitions of what the ‘state’ is in territorial terms. The consequence, with which all these decolonized states have had to deal with in the decades since, is a presumption against the further secession or division of the territory, which has proved problematic for the many multiethnic groups contained within states aspiring to statehood of their own.
As K.J. Holsti pointed out (in The State, War, and the State of War, 1996):
“Having been a colony was sufficient qualification for attaining immediate membership of the United Nations. There was to be no scrutiny of post-colonial political arrangements and practices…
“The process of decolonization produced a single format – the Western territorial state. The heterogeneity of political forms that had existed throughout man’s organized history has now been reduced to a single form…It is clear, however, that the universalization of the territorial state format does not mean that all states share the same characteristics. In particular, artificial states – the creation of colonial authorities and international organizations – are in many ways fundamentally different from states that grew slowly through an organic process involving wars, administrative centralization, the provision of welfare entitlements, and the development of national identities and sentiments.”
And so the sixteen territories on the list are a snapshot of a previous time when they, like much of the world’s surface area, would have been organized into colonial empires. The list is itself a reminder of that historical moment when norms about what constituted statehood and claims to sovereignty were transformed, and its existence today the long tail of the wave of decolonization.
For newer secessionist struggles or movements over the past two decades – as most recently in South Sudan – the Special Committee on Decolonization has little to say. “Finishing the job” of decolonization, as its website has it, only extends to previously recognized colonial boundaries, and not to anything in between. The world map, for any would-be new states, looks frustratingly stable – and their battles detached from the particular label of ‘decolonization’.