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Colonialism Very Much Alive on UN Agenda

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By Shanta Rao

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) – There has been a longstanding myth that colonialism has been long dead – and was unceremoniously buried in the 1950s and 1960s.

But not so fast, says the United Nations.

A 29-member UN Special Committee on Decolonization, which was established by the General Assembly back in 1961, is very much alive and remains fully engaged.

But it is fighting a near-losing battle with a fistful of Western colonial powers who are determined to hold onto their colonies – euphemistically called “non-self-governing territories.”

A seminar, held May 16-18 2017 under the auspices of the Special Committee, in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, focused on a single theme: “The Implementation of the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.”

The question that was posed at the seminar was: “What are the prospects for the future of the decolonization of non-self-governing territories?” And is “eradication” a viable option?

The 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories remaining under the Special Committee’s purview include American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands (Malvinas), French Polynesia, Gibraltar, Guam, Montserrat, New Caledonia, Pitcairn, Saint Helena, Tokelau, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States Virgin Islands and Western Sahara.  

The administering Powers are officially identified as: France, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States.

But the issue of decolonization has also been aggravated by competing claims over disputed territories: the UK and Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (Malvina); and the fight for independence in Western Sahara, where Morocco claims its sovereign right to the territory while battling the Polisario Front (Frente Polisario) fighting for a separate state, and backed by Algeria.

The UN’s Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) has, time and again, requested the General Assembly “to reaffirm that it was ultimately for the peoples of the Territories themselves to determine freely their future political status.”

Perhaps one of the most contentious is the status of Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island of 3.4 million people, and legally described as an “unincorporated territory of the United States.”

The island, which is not among the 17 non-self-governing territories listed by the Special Committee, is divided between those who want an independent state and those who want it to be the 51st American state.

On the question of the formal participation of representatives of liberation movements in UN debates on decolonization, the U.S. has taken the position that “while UN funds, programmes and agencies could provide support to territories that were not UN members, it was the sovereign responsibility of the administering power to determine the nature of such participation, if any, in the UN system.”

Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, told IDN that as far as Puerto Rico is concerned, the referenda had supported joining the U.S., rather than becoming independent, which would be a wise move in light of their serious economic problems.

However, that’s a U.S. Congressional action, which if it didn’t happen under President Barack Obama, it’s certainly not happening now – and the rationale for this isn’t overt racism, but partisanship, he noted.

“Puerto Rico would surely elect Democratic senators, and that would help tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate – which as you’ve seen, is precarious at best.”

After a referendum on June 11 2017, Puerto Rico’s governor announced the U.S. territory has “overwhelmingly chosen statehood in a non-binding referendum”.

“From today going forward, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico,” Governor Ricardo Rossello said.

“It would be highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world, and not respond to the legitimate right to self-determination that was exercised today in the American territory of Puerto Rico.”

The U.S. Congress, however, has final say on any changes to the island’s political status.

Addressing the UN Special Committee on June 19 2017, López Rivera, of the Fundación Oscar López Rivera Libertá, said Puerto Rico had the potential to become a strong nation and an asset to the Caribbean and Latin American economy. 

“We want a country that is worthy of our people and that can be part of the world community,” he said, requesting that the Special Committee take the case of Puerto Rico to the General Assembly and ask it to fulfil its responsibilities to bring an end to colonization.

After a meeting on June 19, the Special Committee sent a draft resolution to the General Assembly calling on the Government of the United States to assume its responsibility to expedite a process that would allow the people of the island to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.

Approving the text without a vote, the Special Committee called on “the United States to move forward with a process to allow the Puerto Rican people to make decisions in a sovereign manner, and to address their urgent economic and social needs, including unemployment, marginalization, insolvency and poverty.”

Also by the text, the Special Committee urged the United States’ Government to complete the return of occupied land and installations on Vieques Island and in Ceiba to the Puerto Rican people, and to expedite and cover the costs of cleaning up and decontaminating areas previously used for military exercises, with a view to protecting the health of their inhabitants and the environment.

The General Assembly was asked to comprehensively consider the question of Puerto Rico and decide on that issue as soon as possible.

During the day-long meeting, according to a UN press release, speakers stressed that Puerto Rico indeed must take its rightful seat as a sovereign State in the General Assembly. 

The first step towards that goal would be to inscribe Puerto Rico on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, speakers said. 

López Rivera, who was released on May 17 2017 after 35 years in prison in the United States, joined more than 50 petitioners in calling for an end to U.S. occupation and for the granting of independence to Puerto Rico.

Described as a Puerto Rican nationalist, Rivera was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 1981 for his involvement with FALN, a Puerto Rican group that claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings in New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico in the 1970s and 1980s. But he was never linked to specific bombings.

The 29 members of the UN Special Committee, chaired by Ambassador Rafael Darío Ramírez Carreño of Venezuela, are: Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Chile, China, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Grenada, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Russian Federation, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sierra Leone, Syria, Timor-Leste, Tunisia, United Republic of Tanzania and Venezuela. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 August 2017]

Photo: Peter Thomson, President of the 71st session of the General Assembly (centre), Rafael Darío Ramírez Carreño, Permanent Representative of Venezuela to the UN and Chair of the Special Committee on Decolonization (left); and Miroslav Jenča, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs; at the opening of the exhibition entitled Commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples on 16 December 2016 at the United Nations, New York. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

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