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 (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 (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.