Friday, June 1, 2012

What Is a Colony? The United Nations’ Definition Needs an Overhaul

In case you didn’t know, last year was the beginning of the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, according to the United Nations, and in Quito, Ecuador, today (June 1, 2012), delegates are meeting for the third day of a major regional summit under the auspices of the U.N.’s (take a deep breath) United Nations Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples—which, since the acronym Unscotswrttiotdotgoitccap would be a bit hard to pronounce, tends to be known as the Special Committee of 24.  The “24” are the random assortment of U.N. member states which form the committee, ranging from U.N. Security Council members China and Russia; major third-world powers such as India, Indonesia, and Chile; and obscure mini-nations like Dominica and Timor-Leste; to pariah states like Cuba and Syria.  The Syrian delegation, rather regrettably, is providing this year’s rapporteur (moderator).

The flag of the United Nations

The Committee’s brief is to address the problem of the sixteen territories on the U.N.’s list of “Non-Self-Governing Territories,” i.e. colonies.  (See the U.N.’s own “decolonization” web page.)  But what counts as a colony?  For some, sixteen seems like a low number, and a lot of the sixteen don’t even belong on the list.  The territories listed are three United States possessions (American Samoa and Guam, in the Pacific Ocean, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean Sea), ten United Kingdom possessions (Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, in the Caribbean; Bermuda, the Falkland Islands, and St. Helena, in the Atlantic Ocean; Pitcairn, in the Pacific; and Gibraltar, in the Mediterranean Sea), one French possession (New Caledonia, in the Pacific), one New Zealand possession (Tokelau, in the Pacific), plus the odd case of Western Sahara.

There are more than a few fishy things about this list.  First, why is only one of France’s colonies on the list?  French Polynesia, Martinique, Réunion, French Guiana, and Corsica are all French possessions that have independence movements (Polynesia’s being the strongest, maybe even a majority).  And New Caledonia, though rightly termed a colony, is scheduled to hold a referendum sometime within the next few years.  A perfectly smooth and unopposed transition to independence is widely expected.  So what is there to discuss about New Caledonia?  Likewise, why are Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands on the list, when Puerto Rico’s independence movement is stronger?

The scene in Syria this week as its government was sending a delegation to Ecuador
to chair a discussion of how to end the horrific evil of the British occupation of Bermuda.

Secondly, some of these territories—most notably Bermuda, the Falklands (more on the Falklands below), and the Caymans—are fully self-governing, with their own parliaments and everything.  Other fully self-governing overseas territories, such as Greenland and the Netherlands Antilles, are, quite rightly, off the list.

The flag of Greenland

Thirdly, majorities in some of the British territories listed—most notably the Falklands, Gibraltar, and Montserrat—have made it well known that they prefer to remain part of the U.K.  Readers are referred to my article on the recent resurrection of the Argentine–British dispute over the Falklands.  Suffice to say, the Falklands have no original indigenous population, the British claimed the islands 50 years before Argentina even existed, only the British have ever held permanent settlements there, and Falklanders pretty much unanimously prefer to be British.  Argentina’s vile behavior over the archipelago is based on no argument other than (a) geographical proximity (weaker even than Nazi Germany’s claims on Poland; parts of Poland at least used to be legitimately German), and (b) a fascist-style expansionist doctrine left over from the Juan Perón era.  However, Argentina has bullied most of the rest of Latin America into going along with them on this—including Ecuador, as its government reiterated on the eve of the Quito summit.   Likewise, Gibraltar held a referendum in 2002 in which more than 98% of the population rejected any choice other than the status quo, not even wishing any shared Spanish sovereignty over the territory.  (My aforementioned article on the Falklands also discusses the Gibraltar case.)  And Montserrat’s prime minister said loudly and clearly on May 31st that he does not consider his island a colony, but a part of the U.K. by choice.  (Tokelau’s situation is slightly different: a U.N.-sponsored referendum on independence in 2006 showed 64% of Tokelauans wanting to split with New Zealand, but the vote, absurdly, set the bar at a two-thirds majority to mandate secession.  Tokelau should stay on the list until New Zealand respects the wishes of its majority.)

Argentines burning Prince William in effigy in Buenos Aires this April

Lastly, why is it that only European or ethnically-European-dominated countries are considered colonizers in the Committee’s view of things?  Even Western Sahara is only on the list as a supposed problem of Spanish, rather than Moroccan, colonialism (see map above).  (Spain withdrew from the territory in 1975; Morocco has occupied most of it, in violation of international law, ever since.)  There is something obscene, one must admit, about Chilean, Indonesian, Indian, Russian, and Chinese delegates sitting around a table, stroking their chins, and discussing the terrible—just terrible—conditions of the poor oppressed people of the Cayman Islands (a filthy-rich tax haven in the Caribbean—with a 98% literacy rate and a longer life expectancy than most developed countries), while saying nothing about Easter Island, West Papua, Kashmir, Chechnya, or Tibet.

The huddled masses of the Cayman Islands, yearning to breathe free

You’ll note that territories colonized by their neighbors don’t make the list either, no matter who the colonizers are.  So there is no mention of Northern Ireland, the Golan Heights, Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, DarfurZanzibar, the Basque CountryKurdistan, Balochistan, or Tatarstan—or puppet states like Northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, South Ossetia, or Abkhazia.  And don’t even get me started on internal colonies like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Darfur.  According to the U.N., this isn’t a colony, but the British Virgin Islands are.

So what is a colony?  Well, according to the United Nations, it doesn’t have anything to do with whether a territory is self-governing or not, or about whether the people there want independence or not.  There just has to be a whole lot of water between them and the capital they’re governed from.  Oh, and one more criterion, apparently: white people always, always, always have to be the bad guys.

My recommendation: scrap this whole Committee, which is a waste of time and money.  Let the U.N. concentrate on a broader and more morally and factually consistent basis on ensuring that all peoples and all territories have the right to pursue more self-determination—if they want it, that is—no matter who or where they are.

[You can read more about Western Sahara, Puerto Rico, New Caledonia, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]


  1. Any news on the publication date of your book, Chris?
    Mick Baker

  2. Thanks for asking. The proofed chapters just got sent in for layout, and I'm told "late summer" is a good estimate. Knock on wood.

  3. I live in a former Netherlands Antilles island, and what I read here sounds like racist rhetoric. The fact that some territories are not on "the list" is a lot more profound than is made out here.

  4. Hong Kong was ruled by the colonial Manchurian dynasty in China before being transferred to the Brits in 1842, claimed by the Republican China in 1911, the Communist China in 1949 and finally annexed by latter in 1997. The Hong Kong people now want independence. Should support them.

  5. All very fine but what is the definition of a colony accepted by the UN and when does a colony cease to be a colony? Apparently a commonwealth is not a colony but there are commonwealths that have very little political powers, while others are practically free countries.


Subscribe Now: Feed Icon