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UN Week – 6/18/12

July 3, 2012

This blog entry is written by members of our blogging community and expresses those experts’ views alone.

By John and Douglas Carey

In this issue: Britain and territorial integrity.

          Our forebears started something in 1776 that blossomed fifty years ago and is still going on. It is called decolonization, the ending of foreign rule in non-self-governing territories. And in the 1950s, dozens of such places gained independence, most without a struggle. France, for instance, freed many countries in Africa. The same was done by Belgium and the UK.

          Over the years since 1960, the decolonization process has been supervised by a special committee of the UN General Assembly. Activity in that committee tapered off as decolonization ran its course in the 1950s. But a few non-self-governing territories remain, and the committee has recently roused itself to try and end the process.

But some of the cases remaining on the Special Committee’s docket present complications. The basic principle of self-determination by residents of non-self-governing territories is sometimes difficult to apply.

          Last week the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was confronted with opposition to its sway over two small territories close to major powers. They are Gibraltar and the Malvinas or Falkland Islands. In each case, the nearby major power would like the UK to leave and then take over. But how would that suit the inhabitants, many of whom, or their forebears, came there from Britain?

          If you read history, or saw the movie “The Iron Lady,” or simply remember, you know that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a British fleet thousands of miles through the Atlantic to chase Argentine forces out of the Malvinas/Falklands. This no doubt gave great satisfaction to inhabitants of British extraction.

     The situation is different in Gibraltar, where the Brits are in firm control and have no intention of allowing Spain to take over against the wishes of the residents.

          But how does the principle of decolonization enter into these historic conundrums? Decolonization says that residents of non-self-governing areas have the right of self-determination. This means they can choose among status quo, independence and free association with some larger country. But what if the residents have been implanted by a larger country that is now in control? That is the situation in the two places under discussion.

          However compelling might be the case for territorial integrity, it cannot compete with the will of the residents. If they do not want control over them to be switched from Britain to Spain or Argentina, how can anyone validly go against their wishes duly expressed in an act of self-determination? And how can Spain or Argentina properly impose their will on those residents?

          At a meeting of the UN’s special committee on decolonization, Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picado, said, “Wake up and smell the coffee: Gibraltar will never be Spanish.” But Spain considers that the principle of self-determination does not apply to Gibraltar, where settlers were put in place by an occupying power and which is not a typical colonized territory.

          Spain says the solution is restitution of both the territory transferred from Spain under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht and territory since occupied illegally by the United Kingdom. That treaty included a number of pacts among various entitles, and ended the so-called War of the Spanish Succession.

Today, June 18th, the committee is to consider the question of Puerto Rico. The positions of the parties are predictable based on past presentations: some want statehood, some want independence, and some are satisfied with being a “commonwealth” under US control. Nothing much new can be expected, just as in the discussions of Gibraltar and the Malvinas/Falklands.

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