UN C24 Decolonisation Committee Regional Seminar May 2017

The UN C24 regional seminar this year showed no change in attitudes, despite several robust interventions from the Falkland Islands’ representative, Mike Summers MLA, challenging the relevance of the UN decolonisation committee to the Falkland Islands and Argentina’s wish to colonise the Falkland Islands in pursuing its sovereignty claim. Similarly, Gibraltar’s representative, Joe Bossano, accused Spain of blackmail in its stance on Brexit. 

The Hon. Mike Summers MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) represented the Falkland Islands at the annual UN C24 Decolonisation Committee’s regional seminar, chaired by Venezuela and held this year in St Vincent & the Grenadines in the Caribbean on 16-18 May 2017. 

The aim of these seminars is to allow more detailed discussion of the situation in the remaining 17 so-called ‘Non-Self-Governing Territories’ (NSGTs)[Note 1] before the full plenary of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation held in June at the United Nations headquarters in New York, USA. UK policy towards this UN Committee can best be described as ranging from non-engagement to limited co-operation, because the C24 fails to take account of the wishes and constitutional position of the people in the UK Overseas Territories, which are free to become independent, where independence is an option, if that is the constitutionally expressed wish of the majority of the Territory’s people. In New York, UK representatives routinely explain the position of the UK Overseas Territories and work behind the scenes to maintain the UN’s commitment to the principle of self-determination, as enshrined in the UN Charter. An attempt by Argentina in the UN Fourth Committee in 2008 to remove the right of self-determination in ‘disputed’ territories was defeated and there has been no discussion of the Falkland Islands in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) since 1988. 

The seminar was, in typical UN-speak, entitled "Implementation of the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism: the Future of Decolonisation in Non-Self-Governing Territories: What are the Prospects?” As such, the aim was to analyse why the C24 had had so little success in encouraging independence in the NSGTs, in the last two decades. One ‘expert’ warned that the Committee had to break this long-standing impasse if 

it was not to die of neglect and inactivity. If the NSGTs continued to languish on the list, he said, the credibility of the Committee would be put at risk. There was a noted absence of NSGT representatives – only seven of the seventeen had turned up. The last territory to become a sovereign state was East Timor in 2002. 

Despite the positive spin placed by the rapporteurs on the outcome of the seminar, there was little or no evidence of any change in attitudes towards decolonisation. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, had sent a brief note of welcome to the seminar, reaffirming his commitment to decolonisation. The representative of the host country (St Vincent & the Grenadines) said that decolonisation should remain the preferred way forward. One ‘expert’ argued that "colonialism by consent is still colonialism.” So the idea that small island communities might freely decide to retain their links with the British Crown is, under this diktat, wholly unacceptable – and given the current make-up of the C24 Committee [Note 2], this attitude is unlikely to change. 

The Argentine representative argued that Falkland islanders were not a people as defined in the UN Charter but an implanted population following what they claim to have been the British expulsion of Argentine settlers in 1833. 

Mike Summers MLA set the story straight – see his speaking notes appended. In 1833, no settlers were expelled, only the short-lived Argentine military garrison [Note 3].  Argentina sought constantly to open discussions with the UK over the future of the Falkland Islands. Yet, in reality, this was not a neutral stance. Argentina’s Constitution includes a pledge to ‘reclaim’ the Islands and it refers only to the ‘interests’ not the ‘wishes' of the Islanders. ‘Discussions’ therefore imply support for the Argentine position, since by it they only mean some form of transfer of sovereignty – essentially a new example of colonialism. Moreover, UNGA had never asserted that the right of self-determination should not apply to the Falkland Islanders, as the Argentines claimed. He reminded the meeting that the Falkland Islands Government had repeatedly invited the UN C24 to visit the Islands but this had always been blocked by Argentina. 

Gibraltar 

In an impassioned speech, the Hon Joe Bassano, Minister for Economic Development in the Government of Gibraltar (and former Chief Minister 1988-96), accused Spain of ‘blackmail’ in seeking to make a Brexit deal conditional upon Spain’s proposal for joint sovereignty. He reminded the seminar that the Gibraltar Government had called a referendum in 2002 on whether or not to accept the principle of joint sovereignty. 98.5% of those who participated (17,900 persons) voted no. The UK had subsequently undertaken not to discuss sovereignty with Spain without Gibraltar’s agreement. Spain’s proposal merely perpetuated colonial rule.

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Note 1: The 17 NSGTs, as determined by the UN C24 Committee, are: American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, French Polynesia, Gibraltar, Guam (US), Montserrat, New Caledonia (Fr.), Pitcairn, St Helena, Tokelau (NZ), Turks & Caicos Islands, US Virgin Islands and Western Sahara.Note 2: Current C24 membership is: Antigua & Barbuda, Bolivia, Chile, China, Congo, Ivory Coast, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Grenada, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Russia, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Sierra Leone, Syria, East Timor, Tunisia, Tanzania, and Venezuela. 

Note 3: Only the Argentine garrison of 26 soldiers (with their 11 wives and 8 children) were expelled; all other residents were encouraged to remain. The only ones to leave with the Argentine military were a Brazilian and Uruguayan, both gauchos, with their female partners (i.e. 4 civilians): they left of their own free will. Everyone else – about 25 people, mostly gauchos but including 3 black slaves – remained. The Argentine garrison was of dubious quality: within a few weeks of their arrival in Port Louis on 6 October 1832, its soldiers mutinied and murdered their commanding officer, Etienne Mestivier. They were captured by some gauchos and held on a British schooner visiting the Falklands for repairs. British sovereignty was reasserted when HMS Clio arrived on 2 January 1833: the Argentine soldiers were instructed to leave on 4 January. When they arrived back in Buenos Aires, seven mutineers were executed for the murder of Mestivier; two were flogged and a tenth man disciplined. The garrison was not a genuine population. It had only been in place for 3 months; it had been the subject of a British protest; it had mutinied, committed murder and plundered the settlement. The real settlers chose to stay. This was not a high point in Argentine history.