UN reasserts push to end colonialism

The United Nations has reaffirmed its commitment to ending colonialism around the world, calling for creative approaches in its push for a more independent future for 17 non-self-governing territories.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says the UN's decolonisation committee, chaired by a representative from Ecuador, is a central part of that effort.

The committee says it is focusing some of its current efforts on New Caledonia, a French territory in the Pacific region with a strong independence movement led by its Indigenous Kanak community.

It comes after the UN added French Polynesia to its so-called decolonisation list in May after winning strong support for the move from other Pacific nations, including Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

At a forum on decolonisation in New York earlier this year, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon strongly called for independence to be granted to the remaining non-self-governing territories.

Mr Ban says the UN is committed to the principle of equal rights, so that people living in these territories have the power to determine the future status of their homeland.

"The international community is more convinced than ever that colonialism has no place in the modern world. The eradication of colonialism, in keeping with the principles of the UN Charter and the relevant United Nations resolutions, is our common endeavour. The Special Committee should be at the forefront in identifying possibilities for change and in promoting priorities in the decolonisation process for the benefit of all."

More than 80 colonial territories, home to around 750 million people, have gained their independence since the United Nations was formed in 1945.

Mr Ban says the UN recognises that residents in the non-self-governing territories may not necessarily aspire to independence.

But he believes it is important that they be given a choice to express what they want for their homelands.

The UN's decolonisation committee says this could include the option of limited autonomy in areas such as justice, policing, health and education.

Or in some cases, it may mean full independence.

The UN's decolonisation committee believes the French territory of New Caledonia is a good example of an area where the local community are having an effective say on the issue.

Under the Noumea Accord, signed in 1998, France gave New Caledonia greater autonomy, including the option of joining regional political meetings like the Pacific Islands Forum.

A referendum is also being planned in New Caledonia next year to determine whether France should maintain control over the territory in areas such as foreign affairs, policing and justice.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says he believes it is important for the international community to be proactive in discussions around the future of self-governing territories.

"It is time for a new kind of fully inclusive dialogue about de-colonisation. The risk of movement, while sometimes frightening, is far more preferable than the stagnation of the status quo."

The United Nations recently added French Polynesia as the 17th member on its decolonisation list.

The move had strong backing from fellow Pacific nations like Nauru and the Solomon Islands, but failed to win support from the United States, Germany or the Netherlands.

Independence supporters hope that placing the French territory on the UN list could help provide some momentum towards a potential referendum on the issue in the near future.

However the people of French Polynesia are divided over independence and the political party which favours the territory remaining part of France won an election there earlier this year.

A politician who has represented French Polynesia in the French Senate for over five years, Richard Tuheiava, concedes it may take time for the territory to gain full independence.

However he has told Radio Australia he believes a crucial first step lies in reforming the territory's electoral laws to restrict voting rights to people who have lived in the territory for at least 15 years.

"Today any Frenchman may vote and get elected only three months after arriving here. We don't want these people to vote at a referendum, we don't want them to decide upon our future. Now if the referendum took place tomorrow, it's clear that French Polynesians would vote against independence. But they will vote 'yes' if we fix that electorate issue. That's our hope and we're betting on this."

A long-time researcher on decolonisation believes the United Nations has struggled to match its rhetoric with action on the issue over recent decades.

Professor Ted Wolfers, from the University of Wollongong, has been invited by the UN's Decolonisation Committee to speak at a number of its regional Asia-Pacific seminars.

He believes independence is an unrealistic goal for most of the non-self-governing territories because they tend to have relatively small populations and economies.

"So there is a question of access to services, their ability to fund themselves, to secure themselves and so on and I think it's fair to say that in most cases, there is not a strong push for independence, but there is a reluctance very often, particularly on the part of the colonial powers, to agree to closer forms of integration because of the economic and the political costs of that."

Professor Wolfers believes the territory with the strongest chance of gaining independence is New Caledonia.

However he says past experience there has shown that referendum proposals on the issue tend to be deferred and the independence movement may struggle to win over the support of a majority of the local population.

Professor Wolfers says the New Zealand territory of Tokelau has a strong independence movement and its residents have voted on the issue a number of times.

However he says the territory's parliament has passed legislation requiring a two-thirds majority for independence to be granted and that level of support has not been reached so far.

Professor Wolfers says he believes the UN could play a constructive role in the future as a mediator when conflicts arise between different players with a stake in a particular territory.

He believes the long-standing conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands is a good example of that.

However he believes the UN needs to set a clearer direction on its approach to the issue.

"The problem is that I think the UN hasn't particularly found a clear way forward. It keeps declaring over decades for the eradication of colonialism. But if it's going to remain faithful to the principles of self-determination and recognise that there are two parties involved, it's hard to see any quick resolution."

The 17 non-self-governing territories are Gibraltar, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Western Sahara, American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Guam, Montserrat, Pitcairn, Saint Helena, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States Virgin Islands, Tokelau and the Falkland Islands

Source: SBS

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