UNITED NATIONS, May 19, 1997
The head of the United Nations entrusted with accelerating the independence of the world's remaining colonies says the U.N. Secretariat is undermining his task.
"Decolonization, as everyone knows, is a political issue," says chairman of the Committee on Decolonization, Ambassador Utula Samana of Papua New Guinea. "But as part of the restructuring of the U.N. Secretariat, they are now trying to de-politicize it and downgrade its importance."
The Decolonization Unit at the Secretariat is being transferred from the Department of Political Affairs to the Department of General Assembly and Conference Services. The move, part of a larger attempt to merge and consolidate several U.N. departments, is intended to "improve efficiency", according to Secretariat officials.
Samana, however, says he "cannot buy that argument."
"I don't know the logic behind this," he says, but suggests the move may be intended "to downgrade the process of decolonization and undermine the work of the Committee."
Syrian delegate Farouk al-Attar says the work of the Decolonization Unit is essentially political. "It cannot now be distorted and given another name."
Indian delegate Gautam Mukhopadhaya points out that any proposed transfer would send a bad signal and also indicate a diminishment of the importance of the Decolonization Committee. "The integrity of the Committee's secretariat should be preserved," he says.
The United Nations' General Assembly Affairs Division says there are no hidden motives.
"The move was for reasons of administrative improvement. It was not part of any hidden plan," says Vadim Perfiliev, director of the division.
There are 17 "non-self governing territories" around the world, most of them administered either by the United States or Britain. "They are called non-self governing territories because the administering powers do not want to call them colonies," Samana notes.
Britain administers ten: Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland or Malvinas Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St. Helena, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Three are under the United States: American Samoa, Guam, and U.S. Virgin Islands. New Caledonia is administered by France, Tokelau by New Zealand, and East Timor by Portugal. Western Sahara, on the other hand, is claimed both by Morocco and the Polisario Front which is fighting for an independent nation state.
In April, both the United States and Britain agreed to sit down with the United Nations to discuss the future of their colonies. The Committee unanimously adopted a resolution recommending "appropriate steps" to assist the people of these territories "to exercise their right to self-determination."
Decolonization is one of the crucial political issues at the world body, says Samana. "It is also one of the greatest achievements of the United Nations."
"My country would not be here if (it were) not for the Decolonization Committee," he says, referring to Papua New Guinea. He also points out that the decolonization process is gradually coming to an end because "we only have a handful of territories."
Samana argues that major powers are guilty of a "double standard" when they pontificate on human rights globally but drag their feet on granting independence to their territories.
"Colonial situations can only end when and if the people of the territories concerned decided on their external political status through an acceptable legal standard with U.N. involvement, he says. "Human rights are part of the process of decolonization, "The destinies of these territories cannot be decided by the mighty powers. They have to be decided by the people themselves. We are here to see it happen."
Addressing the Secretariat, he said: "So please don't play around with the staff, resources and the work of our Committee."
Since the adoption in 1960 of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, some 59 former colonial territories, inhabited by more than 80 million people, have attained independence and joined the United Nations as sovereign member states.
Among them are Namibia, Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, Yemen, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Djibouti, and Papua New Guinea.