Upside Down Decolonization and Remnants of Empires

As mentioned in a previous article, the one about Puerto Rico to be more precise, I wrote my master thesis on non-self-governing territories and their political relations with their metropoles. Those 17 territories (I only study 16 of them because Western Sahara is officially not administered by any foreign country, although Morocco is de facto in charge) are often considered as remnants of empire, territories where decolonization never occurred.

Territories considered as non-self-governing territories by the UN today - Source: UN

Territories considered as non-self-governing territories by the UN today – Source: United Nations

Often seen as the best examples of the failures of the UN to fully decolonize the world, those lands, as overseas territories, are the object of many theories accounting for the reasons why they remain attached to a far-flung power. Those theories are numerous and various, from the obvious realist explanation which suggests that metropoles keep those islands (only Gibraltar and Western Sahara are not islands amongst the list) purely our of interest. Marxists would defend the idea that the rich, that is the metropoles, are exploiting the poor, that is the islands to serve their own purposes. A center/periphery dichotomy can also be applied. The theory which I found the most surprising, because its findings are counter-intuitive, is Upside Down Decolonization.

Upside Down Decolonization

Derived from Postcolonialism (different from Post-colonial), which is an expression of the impacts colonialism had on society, Upside Down Decolonization actually reverses, as its name would suggest, the focus of colonial studies. Instead of looking for explanations in the metropoles’ behaviours, the theory finds that it is actually the overseas territories (OTs) who want to maintain the status quo with their central states. Upside Down Decolonization thus argues that although some territories have not gained full sovereignty, autonomy and control in internal affairs combined with the support that their central states provide them with, makes up for that loss. In return, metropolitan states, by supplying aid to their far-flung territories, manage to secure strategic services. This exchange of advantages thus appears acceptable as both parties seem content with it, and overseas territories have managed to free themselves from the one-sided relationship they were in by using sovereignty games to secure some advantages. In addition, overseas territories often seem eager to maintain their relationship with their former colonizer in an effort to secure the benefits they would not receive if they were independent.

What can be referred to as an “infinite pause in decolonization” is motivated by overseas territories’ will to maintain the status quo and remain in a situation of asymmetric relations with their central state. Apart from rare cases (Scotland, Bougainville and to some extent, New Caledonia), sovereignty is not the ultimate end and autonomy is not necessarily a step towards full statehood.

The originality of Upside Down Decolonization stems from its unique resultas. It is generally assumed that decolonization had never finished because former empires wished to keep last remnants of their past glory and therefore prevented some territories from parting. However, Upside Down Decolonization demonstrates that some territories are the ones advocating for continuous ‘foreign’ domination and thus remain in a situation of colonialism. In these places, “colonialism has largely not been “socially or economically problematic” as it had been elsewhere” which partly explains why those territories are (for most cases) not demanding independence. This approach is nevertheless not diminishing the struggles against colonialism that shook some parts of the world; it simply demonstrates that not all colonial possessions were equal and felt the same needs to free themselves from occupation. It must be emphasized that Upside Down Decolonization neither supports colonialism and its irreversible impact on local cultures and economies, nor does it suggest that it is over.

Upside Down Decolonization also rejects the focus of the UN to impose self-determination under the sole form of independence. However, history has shown that what was crucial after the Second World War, namely independence, is now obsolete and territorial status should rather be adapted to today’s reality. Since the great waves of decolonization of the sixties and seventies, and despite repeated referenda, only East Timor, Montenegro and Kosovo and South Sudan have gained independence. These cases are therefore not the norm considering the number of overseas territories that remain today.

Overseas territories around the world 

Overseas territories are spread across the planet, although they are mainly located in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The remaining overseas territories are under the purview of Australia (6), China (2), Denmark (2), France (16), the Netherlands (4), New Zealand (3), Norway (3), the United Kingdom (17), the United States (14).

Overseas Territories administered by European Union Members - Source: Wikipedia

Overseas Territories administered by European Union Members – Source: Wikipedia

Overseas territories often have limited populations (less than 300,000), they are potentially-sovereign (small states exist) and they are postcolonial, meaning they have been colonized by a foreign power.

Out of the list, very few territories demand independence. In general, the local governments tend to demand a redesign of their political with their metropoles, in order to get more local prerogatives within a federal framework, which has been the case in New Caledonia, a French sui generis community, where the government needed to accommodate the local independentist movement, the FLNKS. In terms of increased autonomy, various sub-national jurisdictions have secured or stuck to their autonomy status, and in some cases enhanced it. These include Denmark’s Faroe Islands and Greenland and New Zealand’s Cook Islands: they have benefitted from measures of self-government – often not shared by other component units of the polity – while remaining comfortably lodged within the purview of a larger, richer, metropolitan state. Some have on the contrary asked for more integration with the metropole, such as in the case of Mayotte.

Advantages or not? 

It must be made clear that overseas territories get advantages from remaining attached to a metropole. For example, the central state must ensure the viability of the local populations, their good governance, but also take care of their foreign policy and defense, elements that small territories would not be able to afford on their own. In return, the advantages from the metropoles vary a lot, from strategic services to financial gains, and access to natural resources. But the burden is heaavy especially in those territories where employment is low and resources scarce, such as in those small islands lost in the middle of oceans, like Saint Helena (UK), Tokelau (New Zealand) and Pitcairn (UK). The territorial management strategies, the financial aids and security they must transfer to their dependencies are weighing the metropolitan powers down. Central governments could allocate the resources they hand out to their OTs to other purposes such as more investment in the metropole rather than on far-flung territories. Possessing OTs demand great financial capacities from the central state also to distribute welfare as OTs rarely have efficient economies – “Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar are almost alone in not requiring substantial external subsidies.


Possessing overseas territories is not a problem per se. Political arrangements are various in order to accommodate all parties and ensure the viability and stability of the political ties between the OTs and the metropoles. Some relationships are more successful than others, but all in all, overseas territories tend to be better off as is that sovereign.

What is however problematic is when the OT is non-self-governing and lack of autonomy. This means that the political arrangement is flawed and thus raises concerns from the international community. It is concerning that local populations are not able to decide on their government and status, or at least not to a sufficient extent, that they are being neglected because metropoles do not see any interest in investing time and effort in them, or that good governance is not being applied. There, the principles of sovereignty and self-determination are being violated. The reasons why territories make the UN non-self-governing list will be detailed in another article.

The cases of Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, and the situation of Hong Kong vis-à-vis China also challenge the principle of self-determination and sovereignty. The UN also seems to omit Israeli settlements that continue to be built illegally in the Palestinian West Bank, South Ossetia and Kurdistan, and more recently Eastern Ukraine following the Russian illegal annexation. These cases all present clear examples of failed self-determination that put people’s freedom, lives and democratic practices at risk. The committee focused on seventeen NSGTs which collectively represent less than 0.02% of the world’s population when millions are suffering from the lack of democracy or live under an oppressive government. Fighting ‘colonialism’ seems a narrow phenomenon compared to all the other forms oppression can take.



One thought on “Upside Down Decolonization and Remnants of Empires

  1. Pingback: Mayotte, the colonial paradox | florafranca

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