Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

No Chance for Biafra: Africa & Balkanization

Welcome back to!

This time, this topic is inspired by the film “Half a Yellow Sun” which is itself inspired by the book of the same name. The author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a Ted Talk on the “The danger of a single story”, which is also extremely inspiring.

The story is about a young woman, Olanna, who grew up in a wealthy Nigerian family and studied abroad, who decides to take up a position at the University of Nsukka, in the South of Nigeria where her boyfriend works. It is with Olanna’s story that the breaking of the Nigerian civil war, or the Biafran War, erupts in 1967. Olanna and her family are then forced to flee their home and see their loved ones die amidst this conflict.Olanna’s family are Igbos and (or Ibos) wanted to seize independence from the rest of the country after years of oppression.

The Biafran War

Like many African countries, Nigeria is a purely colonial creation which did not exist as a political entity before being colonised by Britain. Organised in tribes and kingdoms, the parts of what constitutes Nigeria today were independent fragments in contact with one another, notably for trade. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the United Kingdom conquered all administrative regions, which were regrouped in Protectorates. In 1914, the Protectorates were merged to form Nigeria.

Nigeria seized independence from the United Kingdom on October 1st, 1960, after decades of ‘struggle for freedom’ and self-determination. The Republic of Nigeria was subsequently divided into three federal regions, then four in 1963. In 1966, the government was toppled and replaced by a succession of military governments, which continued until 1979.

The military governments exacerbated ethnic divisions, of which the Igbos, the ethnicity from the South Eastern region of Nigeria, were at the receiving end. As a consequence, on 30 May, 1967, the Head of the Eastern Region, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, unilaterally declared the independence of ‘East Nigeria’, renamed ‘Republic of Biafra’. On 15 January 1970, the loyalist army, backed by British, American and Soviet troops, regained control of the Biafran region, seven days after Col. Ojukwu had fled to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.


Col. Ojukwu ready to flee while the population of Biafra suffers

Almost three years of civil war where the central Nigerian government tried to regain control of the secessionist region left 1 million civilians dead from fighting and famine. The Biafran war also led to the creation of modern humanitarian interventions.

De facto state and African Unity

Foreign interests played a very important role in the resolution of the Biafran crisis:  first for securing the stability of oil supplies (the Biafra region sits on most of Nigeria’s underground and offshore oil resources, the country’s only natural resource); second, for guaranteeing the unity of Nigeria for stability reasons. Note that those arguments are also applicable to the Nigerian government as well.

On the Biafran side, the strategy was to make the conflict last as long as possible in the hope of gaining international support, and thus armament. This worked to a certain extent as several countries like Gabon, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia formally recognized the newly created state. They also counted on the emotion created by the death toll (referred to as a genocide against the Igbos), the displacement of population and general humanitarian crisis in progress in Biafra to appeal to the international community’s emotion to support the Biafran cause.

For the Nigerian central government, maintaining the Nigerian unity was essential. The African Unity Organization, the ancestor of the African Union and whose principal objective was to “promote the unity and solidarity of African states”, strongly sided with Lagos. It was also in most African countries’ interest to do so as if Biafra would have become an internationally recognized state, it would have created a precedent which would have certainly inspired many secessionist regions to do the same, thus shaking the fragile post-colonial fragility of the continent. Britain and the USSR, surprisingly amidst the Cold War, both supported the territorial integrity option.

The fear of Balkanization

The case of Nigeria in the late 60s is not an isolated case as several ethnicities, notably in Africa, have been fighting for fair political representation and equal rights with other groups within their own countries. No need to look too far back to find examples: think Syria, Iraq, and even Turkey.

The issue that is often brought up to explain why Africa is so conflict-ridden since the end of colonialism in the 60s is that states are colonial constructions that have been arbitrarily drawn (also see the Sykes Picot agreement which redrawn the Middle East).  Before Europeans arrived in Africa, borders were formed by natural obstacles – rivers, mountains, etc. – and each ethnicity had its more or less defined own territory. To ease their ruling over the newly conquered lands, European settlers regrouped several regions under the same jurisdictions; this inevitably caused friction as the different people composing those administrative districts had never had to work together as part of the same entity, be it political, economic or cultural.

It is thus without surprise that ethnic tension and independence movements have been emerging in Africa, causing civil wars and sometimes genocide. Some regions would potentially be viable as independent states: Somaliland, on the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden, possesses all the attributes of a sovereign state (currency, stable government, army and police force, etc.), much more than Somalia itself which is considered a failed state. Despite this, Somaliland is not recognized as an independent state by the international community. Among all the African regions claiming independence, only two managed to get international recognition since decolonisation: South Sudan which officially seized independence in 2011, and Eritrea which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Other than that, the colonial map has not changed since the independence waves.

Does the secession of a country solely depend on international support? It appears that South Sudan was able to access to full statehood because of the strong support the independence movement received from the international community, notably in the US. Is it then still down to international powers to decide? One could invoke the argument of genocide of ongoing civil war which helped the case of South Sudan; but this argument still did not allow countries like Rwanda (or Nigeria if you consider the Biafran war as a genocide) to be divided.

In general, the international community fears the “Balkanization” of Africa, whereby countries were to be divided into several smaller one (think Yugoslavia which is now divided into 7 independent countries). Dealing with one government is easier than with multiple; organizing a territorial partition is never an easy task, especially when natural resources are involved. Supporting the independence movements in Africa would come to question the inheritance of the colonial era. In the international community’s mind, and especially in that of the former colonial powers involved in Africa – France and Great Britain – more African members of the United Nations would potentially mean mmore voices to oppose the old colonial order. It would also have probably meant more members of the Non-Aligned Movement to question the West’s superiority.

Going back to the case of Nigeria, the independence of Biafra was not feasible as the project was carried by a single self-interested man who did not hesitate to leave the ship when he saw it was going to sink. National and international interests were also strongly opposing this option, making the project of an independent state totally unlikely.

The case of Biafra is an interesting one because it was the first case which raised the international community’s interest due to the extent of the humanitarian crisis. It, however, was not sufficient to push for the division of Nigeria. Today, Nigeria is the fastest economically growing country in Africa thanks, in parts, to the oil reserves. The destiny of Nigeria would probably have been very different if Biafra had become independent, leaving with most natural reserves.

Further thoughts

This fear of the balkanization of Africa is not only applicable to this continent. The remodelling of borders is dreaded by all nations, including Western ones. It is widely accepted that current states are in their final forms. But the independence movements such as in Scotland, Britany, Catalonia and others, tend to think otherwise. The redrawing of borders has been a constant in history, and there seems to be an urge to continue to do so in certain regions. There is, however, a strong tendency to maintain the status quo even if it leaves many discontent.


Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

Nauru: When Development Goes Wrong  

Imagine an island lost in the middle of an Ocean where people have lived in peace and harmony with the local nature and wildlife for centuries. Then imagine the damages of colonialism and the exploitation to exhaustion of the local natural resource. Then what? Well, everything, from the local culture, wildlife, source of revenues and chance for a bright future have disappeared. This is what happened to several isolated places around the world. The most extreme case is, however, that of Nauru. This little island of 21 square kilometers located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, has been through it all, from peace to war, from a quiet traditional life to extreme westernization, and from wealth to poverty.

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Discovered in 1789 by a British Captain who nicknamed it ‘Pleasant Island’, Nauru was then colonized by Germany in 1888 and taken over by Australia after World War I. The Japanese occupation during World War II dramatically reduced the local population by deporting two-thirds of them to Micronesia for force labour, or because of starvation and bombings during the war. After the conflict, Nauru became a trust territory administered by Australia. The island finally seized its independence in 1968, thus becoming the world’s smallest sovereign entity of the time.

From ‘Heaven’ to Hell

In 1900, it was discovered that Nauruans were sitting on large amounts of phosphate, a highly demanded natural resource used as fertilizer for agriculture. The exploitation of the mineral thus started. The production became more intense with the development of new means of transportation and the modernization of the industry. Australia was the main importer of the resource. The entire economy of Nauru adapted to the wealth of their soil: all traditional occupations disappeared and everyone reconverted into the production of phosphate. As the local population was not sufficient, foreigners arrived on the island, mainly from neighboring islands but also from Asia. At the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that “out of a total population of 12,000, some 4,000 are foreigners. Australians serve as managers, doctors and engineers, Chinese run the restaurants and shops, while other Pacific islanders do the dirty work in the mines.”

Phosphate made Nauru extremely rich: in the 1970s, the island even became the second largest country in the world, with three times the GDP of the United States. The island quickly developed, and the newly founded sovereign state took it upon itself to offer the best services to its population, possible thanks to the revenues generated by the mining. With the feeling that the wrongs of the past had been corrected, namely that the local resources were finally in the hands of the local population after decades of foreign rule, the Nauruans were now able to consume to their liking, and did not need to work to enjoy a high quality of life. The government could indeed provide free health care and education to everyone without imposing taxes.

This situation lasted as long as there was phosphate left: being a finite resource, phosphate eventually ran out. The ‘resource curse‘ had stricken.

A Series of Poor choices

Nobody was oblivious: it was clear from the very beginning that the phosphate would not last forever. A series of measures to continue benefiting from the revenues of the mineral were put in place such as a diversity of investments abroad. Most of them, contracted by the Australian authorities and the Nauruans government both seemed to have met misfortune, thus shrinking the long term revenues for the island. In addition, eager to enjoy their wealth, the Nauruan governments made some poor choices which cost them later on: the creation of a local airline, Air Nauru, was clearly not adapted to the needs and size of the island with its 7 planes even though the local population was around 10,000 inhabitants. When the revenues came to lack, Nauru was no longer able to pay for all the services it had previously offered, and accumulated large amounts of debt it tried to cover by asking for loans from the Asian Central Bank, but also by trying to become an offshore banking center, and tax haven for the Russian mafia, without success as the G7 quickly put an end to it. Nauru even sued Australia in 1989 in front of the International Court of Justice asking for repair for the destruction of one third of the island during the colonial era. Australia settled the suit for about $75 million. The fall of the price of phosphate in the 90s only worsened the situation, until it ran out in the early 2000.

The story of Nauru’s descent from prosperity to penury is one of the most cautionary tales of modern development

Dramatic Consequences

Beyond the impact on the local economy, the exploitation of phosphate irreversibly affected numerous aspects of Nauru’s life. First, the local population seems to have forgotten how to do anything with is not linked to mining; fishing has long been forgotten and replaced by imported processed food and the excavation of the phosphate has destroyed all possible arable land. As a result, the island entirely depends on imports for its food and the population presents high levels of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure, and the life expectancy has dramatically dropped to 50 for men and 55 for women. It is estimated that 95% of the population is overweight.


Nauru from the sky – Photo: Radio Australia

The consequences for the local climate are also worth mentioning: the deforestation on 90% of the islands have induced a continuous drought and is struck by heat waves. In addition, the local population lives on the coast, which is only 10 meters above the sea level, making them very vulnerable in the face of climate change and the rising of the oceans. For that reason, Nauru has joined 44 other small countries like Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) who fight together to ensure the survival of their threatened nations. The Maldives are on the forefront of the battle, hoping to put pressure on the big countries to halt the already ongoing global warming process which is already harming many in small islands around the globe.

Today, “seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation.”

All in all, Nauru has become “case study for environmentalists and anthropologists in how easy it is to destroy a tropical ecosystem and crush a native culture.”

Finding Something Else To Do

The phosphate age is over and Nauru has needed to find new sources of revenue, which it has found by working with Australia. “Under former Prime Minister John Howard, the nation introduced the now-infamous Pacific Solution, a policy of diverting asylum seekers to detention centers on nearby Pacific islands.”

As a result, Nauru has become a refugee camp for all those got caught while trying to reach Australia by the seas. Since 2001, the Nauru Regional Processing Center has been hosting around 650 refugees at a time in unsanitary barracks. “In addition to the unnecessary and excessive processing period for asylum seekers, the camp has been singled out as substandard and inhumane by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees” which corroborates with the numerous cases of violence and rape which have become public.

Although it does not come close to the revenues once generated by phosphate, supporting ‘Solution Pacific’ is what Nauru has found to get some revenues. Who knows what will happen when the UNHCR will finally act and close those camps and Australia addresses their refugee crisis…

More about Nauru

I recently finished reading a novel taking place in Nauru titled “J’ai entraîné mon peuple dans cette aventure” (I led my people in this adventure) by Aymeric Patricot. Based on the history of the island, the story shows through the eyes of the main character how he experienced the changes the island was confronted to, how the local life evolved and how the local authorities, Australian than Nauruans exploited the phosphate and led the country to its loss. Although romanticized, the book appears to give a clear image of what happened in Nauru and how the local population who were eager to have access to more led their country to their doom.


Decolonization, History and Culture

France’s forgotten territories: Ile des Faisans and Ile Julia

Bruno Fulgini at the ANAJ IHEDN conference in Paris on 29.10.15

Bruno Fuligni at the ANAJ IHEDN conference in Paris on 29.10.15

Yesterday evening I attended a conference in Paris, in the prestigious Ecole Militaire. On top of taking place in an amazing location (you get a close up view onto the Eiffel Tower from there), this is also an important location for whoever is interested by questions of defence. A special organisation was created to address those questions. For the ANAJ IHEDN, defence means more than what you would first assume. Defence is cultural, intellectual, military and so much more.

The topic of yesterday’s conference was the French forgotten territories, those pieces of land scattered around the globe which few people know about. On this blog, I have previously talked about Mayotte and some former French colonies such as Madagascar, but I have not yet touched upon the inhabited territories that France possesses. Based on his book “tour du monde des terres françaises oubliées”, Bruno Fuligni presented the enclaves, islands, rocks, houses and memorials which continue to make France an empire on which the sun never sets.

Many believe that France is now a small country, as it is only a fraction of what it used to be. This is, however, only partly true. France may have lost its African, American and Asian possessions to decolonization, but some corners of the world were spared by this process.

In this article, I will not refer to the DROM and COM, the inhabited overseas territories that everybody knows about – Martinique, Guadeloupe, Wallis et Futuna, Saint Pierre et Miquelon, Mayotte, French Guyana, etc. In this article I will only touch upon some of the examples which were discussed yesterday as the list of those French forgotten territories is long. I will start with the French possessions which are located in Europe. On top of the French enclaves in Germany, which I will not discussed as they are inhabited and not so uncommon, many islands, rocks, archipelago, houses, enclaves, etc. still belong to France; in my opinion, those places are worth knowing about.

The pheasants

Ile des Faisans

Ile des Faisans

In the south-west of France, a river called Bidassoa marks the border with Spain. In the middle of this river, the tiny “ile des Faisans” (3000 m2) is a historical curiosity and landmark. Most people believe that this island was named after the birds when it is actually referring to the use of this piece of land, which the nickname of the island, “the island of the Conference” gives us a hint. Indeed, the island has been widely used for diplomatic purposes. “Faisans” is in fact a reference to the “doers” or the diplomats and not to the birds. The island was indeed used several times to settle dispute between France and Spain. It was on the Bidassoa that Francois I was returned to France in exchange for his sons. It was also there that, in 1659, the marriage of Louis XIV and Marie Therese of Austria, daughter of Philip IV of Spain was settled, as agreed in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Since the treaty, the island is a French and Spanish condominium, meaning that, although the island is not inhabited, the police administering the territory changes every six months. Next February, France will then have to pass on the keys to Spain until next August. Although fastidious, this system has avoided many confrontations between the two neighbour countries which have used this island as a safe haven to decide on the destiny of the two nations. Only diplomats could have imagined this administrative arrangement..


A volcanic eruption created Ile Julia (or Fernandea)

A volcanic eruption created Ile Julia (or Fernandea)

The other example which is worth mentioning is actually quite a funny story as France is the owner of a ghost island in the Mediterranean, between Sicily and Malta.  Ile Julia (or Ferdinandea for the Italians and Graham for the Brits) is particularly worth dwelling on as it no longer exists but might reappear. In 1831 an island appeared as a result of a submarine volcano eruption. The Italians rushed to claim ownership by throwing a row on this hot piece of land. The row burned, thus destroying the Italian sovereignty. The Brits then sent the navy, but the ship was too big to get close enough to put a flag. The French then sent a scientific mission to conquer the land and study the mysterious island. A few months later, the French government sent another mission to reinforce their settlement. The island was, however, no longer there. Turns out the island was only made of volcanic dust which had been washed away by the waves. So technically, France is the owner of a ghost island.

Maybe, someday, Julia Island will reappear. And due to its key strategic location, and despite France’s official sovereignty rights on Julia,  there might be some opposition to France’s sovereignty claim. When the island reappears, it will be crucial to reassert the claim against the competitors… it must be remembered that the competition will be tough, especially considering that Italy placed a waterproof flag on the volcano after Mr. Fuligni joked in one of his article that France should do it….

There are many more examples I need to tell you about; they all have their own stories and their own quirks.

Next time, read about the special and tiny places France owns across the globe and which report to its national history, and more precisely to some very important figures.



Ceuta And Melilla: Another entry door into Europe

The migration wave coming from Africa and reaching Europe makes the headlines everyday. This migration patterns shows the failure of the West’s deployment in Northern Africa. The resurgence of crises in Congo, Mali, Burundi and so forth also reinforce the idea that we still live in a divided world. And those who suffer are not to come to Europe because they do not belong. And what better way to mark this divide that with a wall? There are many examples of such infrastructures which try to keep migrants away from a better life; walls mark the border between Mexico and the US, between North and South Korea, Jerusalem and the West Bank, India and Bangladesh, in Cyprus, etc.

But did you know that a wall prevented Africans from accessing two cities located on the continent? What I am referring to here are the Spanish exclaves located on the opposite side of the Mediterranean of the mainland. These cities are called Ceuta and Melilla and are situated on the Moroccan coast. Ceuta is right on the other side of the Gibraltar strait, while Melilla is further East.Ceuta and Melilla

Morocco vs. Spain

Technically speaking, the two cities are on African soil, but belong to Spain. The local currency is euro. Melilla is a semi-autonomous city, governed by a mayor-president. For that reason, it is part of the EU. And because those two cities are EU outposts outside of Europe, they offer the safest alternatives to reaching the Old Continent for migrants coming from all over Africa (mainly sub-saharian). Every year, thousands of migrants risk their lives in the hope of crossing the walls which separate the European enclaves from Morocco.

Most surprisingly, Morocco is adding difficulties to the migrants’ quest. It is eyebrow-raising because Morocco does not recognize Spain’s sovereignty over these two cities for the reason that they are in Morocco and thus historically belong to them. Spain, on the other hand, claims that Spanish presence dates back to before Morocco became a sovereign and nation-state, thus invoking the historical precedent rather than geographical considerations. In this case, and like in many other when in comes to overseas territories, organizing a referendum to consult the local populations would be pointless. Take the case of Mayotte which was previously discussed in an article: who would choose to be attached to the Comoros when you can remain French? The two options do not offer the same opportunities. For that reason, self-determination is not invoked by Morocco. In this case, territorial integrity is, just like Spain does against the UK for Gibraltar.

The great walls 

Going back to those walls, Ceuta is surrounded by 20km of wires while Melilla is separated by 3 layers of fences over 10 km. Guarded 24/7, those borders can be deadly for whoever tries to overpass them. They, however, do not defeat everybody, and hundred of migrants still manage to make it to Spain (4 354 in 2013). If not immediately caught by the Guardia Civil or the Moroccan police, they can no longer be ‘pushed back’ to Morocco, as stated under European law. If sent back to Morocco, migrants are often in bad shape and still undesired illegal immigrants in Morocco.

Walls were not walls before the 1990s when they were reinforced. Before then, Spanish exclaves and Morocco were difficult to delineate, and inhabitants from both communities walk freely across borders.The wall of Melilla

The Spanish-Moroccan borders are also the object of other types of trafficking, from both times this time. The Spanish enclaves are actually exempt of taxes, thus making good much cheaper than in mainland Europe, and mostly accessible for the Moroccans. The latter thus buy European foods and items from the harbour area at the border between the two countries, and sell them on the Moroccan side. Local authorities have attempted to put an end to this trade by banning vehicles from entering the warehouses, turning the merchants into ‘human mules’ as some carry up to 100kg in duty free goods.

Another problem of these exclaves are the Moroccan shanty towns. In Ceuta specifically, the shanty town “Principe Alfonso” is a no-go zone, and is considered as Spain’s most dangerous area. There, Spanish authorities have no rights. Illegal trafficking and terror do. There is no future for the local inhabitants. They are not Spaniards and they do not live in Morocco. They are nothing. The neighbourhood is also recognized as a jihadist recruitment center.

What now?

Problems seem to pile up in the two exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Illegal immigration, violence, human rights abuse, sovereignty dispute, poverty, despair… Nothing is changing other than the reinforcement of the borders to keep Spain out of reach of the migrants.

The best way to address the issue is to understand that Africa is in a dire situation, and that, even though Europe is not the paradise, it is still better than most countries from which migrants leave. Yes, migrants are illegal, but no, this does not justify that violence.


Non-Self Governing Territories: the UN’s failure to eradicate colonialism

This post consists of extract of my master thesis “Non-Self-Governing Territories: What Power Structure with their Metropolitan States? – Upside Down Decolonization and Remnants of Empires”

Decolonization and self-determination promotion are often argued to be a prerogative of the United Nations due to the organization’s inclusive membership and the context of its creation. The UN, building on the failures of the League of Nations, put together a system based on mutual trust and international collaboration through collective security to create a world free of wars. One way to achieve this goal included an institutional approach to resolving conflicts, but also counted on putting an end to colonialism which had oppressed some parts of the world for centuries. Although at the time of the emergence of the UN, empires were disintegrating and some colonial powers still needed to be pushed to give away what they saw as their sovereignty rights. However, in spite of the harsh condemnation of the non-respect for the principle of self-determination, some territories, named “non-self-governing territories” (NSGTs) by the UN, still lack autonomy today, a situation that is unlikely going to change any time soon.

UN's list of the 17 non-self-governing territories

UN’s list of the 17 non-self-governing territories (United Nations)

Included in Wilson’s 12 points, the idea of self-determination and the end of colonialism was first advocated after the First World War, and became one of the League of Nations’ central principles. It was the first time “that the West European colonial Powers created truly international machinery for supervising the conduct of colonial administration, and even then only under pressure from the United States, in particular from her idealistic President, Woodrow Wilson”.

After the First World War, the mandate of the defeated countries’ former colonies fell mostly under the supervision of the other colonial powers (Belgium, France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) although Wilson had suggested they were administered by “smaller Powers”. The organization had very limited impact on the decolonization process due to evident flaws in its system.

In the wake of the Second World War, most empires had collapsed, or at least shrunk. Amongst the fifty-one founding members of the organization, “over half had previously experienced some form of colonial rule”, creating a strong anti-colonial front amongst the UN. Colonialism became a “fundamental evil which all members of the family of nations have a positive moral duty to assist in terminating”. In addition, opposition was visible amongst what would become the Permanent Members of the Security Council (P5): the USSR was a fervent advocator of decolonization due to its Marxist political ideology; China and the United States were moderate supporters of the idea, while France and the United Kingdom remained opposed to the project due to the importance and advantages of their colonial empires.

The creation of the United Nations opened a new chapter of world history where ensuring self-determination of all peoples and putting an end to colonialism were central goals. The importance of these ideas can be illustrated by the fact that out of the nineteen chapters of the Charter of the United Nations Organizations, three are dedicated to decolonization (XI, XII and XIII).


Definition of a non-self-governing territory

The criteria defining a non-self-governing territory where adopted by the General Assembly on November 23, 1953 in resolutions adopted based on the recommendations of the specially created Fourth Committee. A territory is defined as a NSGT if it “has not attained a full measure of self-government” or if it retains “final remnants of global colonialism which are yet to be granted acceptable levels of self-governance”. Resolution 742 (VIII) defines the parameters that should be taken into consideration when analysing a territory. To be ‘eligible’ to make the list, only inhabited territories are qualified, therefore excluding “the Antarctic territories claimed by the UK, Norway, Australia and others and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam”.
It is important to note that being removed from the list is not irreversible: French Polynesia was added again in May 2013 after decades of absence from the list.

Criteria for making the list

Based on the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Factors (Non Self Governing Territories) set up by resolution 648 (VII), the list of criteria includes three parts which each correspond to different paths to self-governance. Independence is therefore not the only acceptable alternative. The UN “considers that the manner in which Territories referred to in Chapter XI of the Charter can become fully self-governing is primarily through the attainment of independence, although it is recognized that self-government can also be achieved by association with another State or group of States if this is done freely and one the basis of absolute equality”. Territories will be added to the list if they do not respect the demands linked to their status.

The list defines the requirements in terms of autonomy (political and economic), of democracy (free and regular elections) as well as on the way a territory changed status. It is clearly stipulated that “for a Territory to be deemed self-governing in economic, social or educational affairs, it is essential that its people shall have attained a full measure of self-government”. The report also affirms that a colonial power cannot decide to send off a colony without ensuring its viability

Remarks on the list of non-self-governing territories 

Map of the non-self-governing territories

Map of the non-self-governing territories (United Nations)

Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) are the object of a sovereignty dispute – the former between the UK and Spain, the latter by the UK and Argentina.

The United Kingdom is the country that still holds the most NSGT with ten under its jurisdiction, and New Zealand the least with only one (Tokelau).

Apart from Western Sahara and Gibraltar, the remaining fifteen territories are all islands. The latter is the only territory located in Europe, a striking exception when considering that colonialism traditionally does not refer to the Old Continent.
Most territories are located in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Western Sahara is the only NSGT which is officially not administered by a foreign country, although de facto, Morocco plays that role.

Difference with other overseas territories

Aside from the obvious differences with other territories which enjoy the characteristics listed above, NSGTs are different in the fact that their situation is still considered as ‘colonial’ by the UN as, on top of “the social and cultural traces the colonial past may have left”, they also lack autonomy. NSGTs are still colonized and colonialized.
Jan de Koning made the difference between these two terms to explain that all territories that were once ruled by a foreign power are colonized and thus principles of Postcolonialism apply there. However, the territories that have been granted enough autonomy or independence have been decolonialised as they cannot be considered as colonies in terms of material possession. For that reason, it is possible to assume that territories mentioned in the United Nations’ Non-self-governing territories list are by definition neither decolonialised nor decolonised.



The United Nations aims to ensure the promotion of self-determination, under the different forms it believes fulfil the necessary criteria. Some territories however remain in a situation which is deemed problematic and thus ought to be changed.
When reviewing the NSGTs, one cannot help but notice that the reason for them being on the list are plural and more complex that they might first appear. The local population might be satisfied with their situation and yet be on the NSGT list.
It appears that the territories can be split into three main categories as to why the UN believes they are not self-governing.

 To read more about why each territory is on the NSGT list, refer to my thesis available here


Puerto Rico, the USA and the UN: Questions of colonialism

This first post is related to what I wrote my master thesis about: non-self-governing territories. You probably never heard of this concept and you probably did not know that, officially, there are 17 of them. I must admit I didn’t either before I stumbled upon them on the United Nation’s website two years ago. In brief, non-self-governing territories (NSGTs) are territories where the principles of autonomy, self-governance and self-determination are not applied, according to the work of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization (also known as the Committee of the 24). NSGTs are different from other overseas territories in the fact that their situation is still considered as ‘colonial’ by the UN. They remain colonized and colonialized (i.e. they still bare traces of colonialism on their culture and are still occupied). Territories such as Samoa, French Polynesia, Gibraltar and Western Sahara are on this list.

This post, however, does not focus on the territories that make the list, which will be the object of future articles. The focus will be put here on the territories that do not make the list (in my opinion and that of experts, many more should), and especially Puerto Rico. According to the UN, the USA are also accused of colonialism in Guam, American Samoa and the American Virgin Islands. So Puerto Rico is not an isolated case. It is just not as official.

A little bit about Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is the most easterly and smallest island of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, and was discovered by Christopher Columbus. The US took it over from Spain in 1898. The island adopted its own constitution in 1951 and has since held regular and democratic elections for its local government. The capital is San Juan.

Flag and location of Puerto Rico

Flag and location of Puerto Rico

In its full name ‘Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’, it is an unincorporated (meaning that a Federal legislation has established the institutions of the local government), organized (not all the provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply) territory of the US, like Guam and the American Virgin Islands. The commonwealth status of Puerto Rico (and of the Northern Mariana Islands) was adopted as a loose translation of the Spanish term ‘“Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico”.

Barack Obama is the Head of State, while the Head of Government is Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla. Puerto Rico has one representative to the House of Representatives, who has no voting right expect for in the committee that person sits on. So the US government is responsible for all of its overseas territories’ external relations, tariffs and trade, judicial system, currency (USD), defense, sustainability and good governance. But Puerto Ricans do not vote for the American President in return.

All in all, and like all the American dependencies which are not American states, Puerto Rico belongs to the United States but is not part of it.

Puerto Rico, the USA and colonialism

Although Puerto Rico had been removed from the Non-Self-Governing list in 1953, allegations of colonial malpractices against the territory persist. As an illustration, the case of Puerto Rico has been the object of 33 resolutions in favour of the island’s right to self-determination since 1973. The case of the island was discussed last May, as the Special Committee on Decolonization gathered in Nicaragua for their annual assembly, and at the Non-Aligned Movement summit. Latin American states, and especially Cuba, have been pushing for the re-examination of the case of the island by the UN. In other words, the recommendations of the Committee of the 24 are believed to have only been partially implemented.

Plus, the question of the political status of Puerto Rico vis-à-vis the USA remains on the table. Several plebiscites have demanded political changes (full integration as an American state, in free association with the USA or full independence) as political influx towards either one end or the other was never completed. Complete independence is unlikely to become reality as the political, economic and historical ties seem too strong for a political rupture between Washington and San Juan (independence in free association or becoming the US’s 51st state are the solutions which have the strongest support). Nevertheless, the nature of the political ties that link Puerto Rico to the USA must be refreshed to abide to the rules of self-determination and self-governance.

A messy economy

Until 2006, the economy of Puerto Rico used to be the fastest growing in the region. The change can be attributed to changes in tax preferences which discouraged firms from investing in the island, as well as to the rise of oil prices which Puerto Rico depends on for its electricity production. This led to high unemployment rates (up to 16% in 2011), brain drain and immigration, mainly to the US. The recent imposition of a minimum wage also took a toll on the local economy as the local GDP per capita is about a third of that of the mainland, discouraging employment. The local government has been unable to address those economic problems as it is unable to declare bankruptcy or depreciate the currency due to its dependency status. The island has thus far accumulated $70 billion in public debt. 

These problems highlight the failures of the United States when it comes to ensuring the financial health of its dependencies, even though, as the administrative power, it is its responsibility to do so.

Puerto Rico as seen from the USA

Despite all these elements, it must be emphasized that Washington is not forcing Puerto Rico to remain a dependency. The situation must be considered as a calculated political choice where both parties find advantages. On one hand, Puerto Rico receives financial support which ensures living standards and benefits which the population would probably not enjoy if the island was an independent state. The territory also has a safety net guaranteed by the United States, in case of natural catastrophe or foreign attack. On the other hand, in spite of the financial burden that accompanies the possession of dependencies, the US enjoys several assets that could explain why it wants to retain control of the Caribbean island. First, it is a strategic outpost in the Far East of the Caribbean, which is interesting for military purposes, as demonstrated by the posting of the US Navy on the island of Vieques where military trainings are taking place. Puerto Rico is also a key asset to monitor and control trade on route to the Panama Canal, as a sea lane passes nearby. The island is also central in the fight against drug trafficking and smuggling to and from the Caribbean.

Why should we talk more about Puerto Rico

The case of Puerto Rico questions several important principles, namely self-determination and self-governance. This case also questions the work of the UN, and that of the Special Committee on Decolonization in particular. Puerto Rico was deemed self-governing more than 60 years ago, but recent events show that this status should be reconsidered. After all, French Polynesia was put back on the NSGT list after half a century off it. The same could – and should – happen to Puerto Rico.