21 May 2003


Press Release



Territories Urged to Hold Referendums by Set Date to Assess

Aspirations of Their Peoples, Advance Decolonization

(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

THE VALLEY, Anguilla, 21 May -- For many countries of the Caribbean region, the quest for independence was tempered by a strong desire to build a robust, sustainable economic foundation on which to realize an independent State, the Regional Seminar on Advancing the Decolonization Process in the Caribbean and Bermuda heard this morning as it continued a round of discussions on the implications of self-government in that region.

Prompting the debate today on the implications of self-government in the Caribbean were two experts from Bermuda and the United States Virgin Islands.  Participants included member States of the Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, also known as the “Special Committee of 24” on decolonization, representatives of several Non-Self-Governing Territories, an administering Power, and a regional organization. 

Exploring the economic implications of independence for Bermuda, expert Walton Brown said independence was not currently being pursued in any British Overseas Territories, which comprised 10 of the remaining 16 Non-Self-Governing Territories on the United Nations list.  Without question, one of the key aspects, and often the most hotly debated topic, pertained to the economic implications of a move toward Statehood. 

He suggested that the sensitivity surrounding that question involved the frame of reference used by so many critics of independence -– comparing Bermuda in 2003 to Africa of the 1960s or to the wider Caribbean of the 1970s.  Lessons learned from many newly independent States in the 1960s -- against the backdrop of weak, dependent economies and primary agricultural or natural resource production subjected to the vagaries of global demand and supply -– had crippled too many States at the outset, and no nation wanted to repeat that. 

Perhaps of all the remaining British colonies, Bermuda was the most constitutionally advanced and it had a sound economic foundation, he said.  Independence was certainly no panacea, but from a purely economic vantage point, it would lend the level of autonomy Bermuda currently needed to ensure it could remain in a strong competitive position.  With Bermuda’s advanced constitutional position, economic strength and political stability, it could be able to make that transition more easily than others had in the past.

In the discussion that followed, the representative of the United Kingdom said he was ready for Bermuda to take the final step to independence whenever it was ready to do so.  His Government had given Bermuda increased autonomy over the years, with the expectation that those decisions were steps on the path to independence.  It was really up to Bermuda, however, to express the wish to take that final step.  Whether he could contemplate giving up any of his reserve powers in advance of that, he would not think so.  It might be useful for some Committee representatives to go to Bermuda to establish their own opinion about Bermuda’s readiness for independence.

Expert Carlyle Corbin (United States Virgin Islands), speaking in his personal capacity, said that the attainment of self-government through independence for the remaining small island territories was a clear and viable option.  All that mattered would be the terms of the transition from dependency to independence.  Yet, for the existing Non-Self-Governing Territories, the transition from dependency to a self-governing status entailed significant and fundamental shifts in the existing governing arrangements.

Under independence, he explained, all functions of government under the administrative control of the administering Power would be transferred to the territory, either immediately or within a mutually agreed time frame.  Internal constitutions could be modified or totally rewritten to reflect the new independence status.  Under integration, many of the present functions under territorial control would be shifted to the control of the State into which the Territory was to be integrated.  A new constitution reflecting the new integrated status would have to be drafted, or in the Case of the United States Territories (those with constitutions), extensively amended. 

Under a free association arrangement, the elements of the arrangement would be subjected to negotiation, he said.  It might well be that, in the era of globalization, independence for small States was as much an interdependent exercise than ever before, and therefore, sustainable, given the widening of free trade agreements, liberalized markets, and collective security.  Accordingly, several of the small island Non-Self-Governing Territories in the Caribbean might be faced with a decision to pursue a timetable for independence if they felt that continued constitutional dependency impeded their ability to adjust quickly enough to developments in the international marketplace. 

The representative of Bolivia, a Committee member, said that yesterday’s intervention had illuminated clearly the need for economic and social development, and constitutional reform.  He had gathered that the constitutional review processes under way in the Territories had their limitations, however, given the nature of the relationship with the administering Powers.  He had also heard the level of frustration.  He proposed to inform the peoples of the Territories about the three options, and then to hold a referendum by a certain date to determine, once and for all, the wishes of the populations. 

Before moving to the referendum stage, a representative of the Organization of American States (OAS) highlighted, as critical, education and public awareness in the Territories before any decisions were made.  The OAS had been involved in the constitutional reform of some of the independent Caribbean States, and education programmes and dialogue had been key to getting the people involved.  Although the three options were set out today, there were some variations that needed to be fleshed out within at least two of them.  It would be useful for the Committee to build on the models put forth today as a basis for public education campaigns. 

Agreeing that education was a key element in the decolonization process, the representative of Pitcairn said that the people there did not fully understand the possibilities or significance of the various political futures that might be available to them.  Independence would require substantial external support of an economic and political nature, by treaty arrangement.  Association with another State would immediately raise the question of a long-term association with the United Kingdom.  Geographically, Pitcairn would not want to exclude a possible relationship with France and French Polynesia.  The two other possibilities were New Zealand and Australia. 

Regarding integration, he continued, thoughts again focused on French Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia.  For practical reasons, the United Kingdom seemed a less likely possibility for integrated status.  The people of Pitcairn were eager to develop a work programme with the Special Committee and the United Kingdom Government, in accordance with the Committee’s proposal of 2000.  He also wished to explore the possibility of a United Nations visiting mission to Pitcairn at an early date, he said. 

Saint Helena and Monserrat were the only two grant-aided British Overseas Territories, the representative of Saint Helena noted.  In Saint Helena’s case, that was due to its isolation and the fact that it did not produce enough raw materials to pay the bills.  Presently, Saint Helena had no aspirations towards independence.  As far as its people were concerned, the “ins” were “out”.  It could not afford independence, nor did it want a flood of visiting Europeans, anyway.  Regarding independence, perhaps the formula of sports teams should be applied, wherein the rules of the game were changed to fit the circumstances.  He hoped the United Kingdom delegation had listened carefully to the discussions.  Saint Helena was “very satisfied” with what the United Kingdom had done for it, by balancing the books year after year.  Like the others, it would like to have more say in managing its own affairs. 

Speaking on behalf of the Kanak people, a representative of Front de Libération Nationale Kanak Socialiste (New Caledonia), a speaker recalled that New Caledonia-Kanaky had been reinscribed in 1986 on the list of countries to be decolonized.  Its land had been submitted to massive immigration, with a tremendous boom in the 1960s and 1970s, owing largely to the mining of nickel, its main natural resource.  That boom had resulted in demographic and economic links unfavourable to the indigenous people.  Support on the international scene for Front de Libération Nationale Kanak Socialiste in its claim to independence had so far come from countries in the Pacific region, but the Front was “afraid” that the French diplomatic offensive, in the form of aid packages to the region, might neutralize the Front’s support.  He asked the United Nations to help to satisfy the aspirations of the indigenous people, while offering lasting prospects for all New Caledonians. 

Also participating in the discussion were the representatives of India, Turks and Caicos, Côte d’Ivoire, Anguilla, Chile, Montserrat, Cayman Islands, Indonesia, Spain, and Argentina.  Expert Howard Fergus of Montserrat also spoke again today.

The regional seminar will meet again at 3 p.m. today to convene a further discussion on the way forward in the decolonization process.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.