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.