16 October 2007


16 October 2007
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Background Release




The United Nations is sending a five-member team to Tokelau, a Non-Self-Governing Territory administered by New Zealand, to observe a referendum on self-government in free association with New Zealand from 20 to 24 October 2007.

Members of the team include a representative of the Special Committee on decolonization, Ambassador Robert Aisi of Papua New Guinea, an official from the Decolonization Unit of the Department of Political Affairs, and an Information Officer from the Department of Public Information.  In addition, two officials of the Electoral Assistance Division, also of the Department of Political Affairs, will monitor the conduct of the referendum at the request of the New Zealand Government.

Tokelau, located in the South Pacific, about 500 kilometres north of Samoa, consists of three small atolls and has a population of approximately 1,500.  It has been administered by New Zealand since 1926.  It has made significant strides towards self-determination in recent years.  In August 2005, it decided to explore the option of self-government in free association with New Zealand.

The first referendum to determine Tokelau’s future status took place in February 2006, when 60 per cent of Tokelauan voters supported the option for self-government in free association with New Zealand.  However, that percentage was not sufficient to meet the two-thirds majority required, as set by Tokelau’s General Fono (Tokelau’s national representative body), and so Tokelau’s status remains as before the referendum.  The 2006 voting was also conducted in the presence of a United Nations electoral monitoring mission, which deemed the election process credible and as reflecting the will of the people of Tokelau.

Following the February 2006 vote, much debate took place within Tokelau, as well as among Tokelauans abroad, who had not been eligible to vote according to the decision made by the General Fono.  Following a comprehensive consultation process, the General Fono decided in August 2006 that a second referendum would be held, and on the same basis as the first referendum.  It also decided that a detailed process of engagement with the people of the atolls of Tokelau would be held to ensure the electorate had the fullest possible understanding of all the issues involved.  To address apparent concerns about the significance of a move to self-government, Tokelau’s leaders also conducted extensive consultations earlier this year with Tokelauan communities in Hawaii, American Samoa, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand.

The further referendum to determine Tokelau’s future status will take place over a five-day period, with voting in Apia, Samoa, on 20 October 2007, and in Fakaofo, Nukunonu, and Atafu, Tokelau, on 22, 23 and 24 October, respectively.  As in 2006, Tokelau has decided that a two-thirds majority of the valid votes cast will be required to change Tokelau’s status.

In the case of a positive outcome of the referendum, a date would then be set for a “Day of Self-Government” -- probably in mid-2008, thus allowing time for the necessary legislative amendments to be enacted in New Zealand.

There are currently 16 Non-Self-Governing Territories remaining on the United Nations’ decolonization list.  The Special Committee on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (also known as the Special Committee on decolonizationor the Committee of 24) is the focal point for the implementation of the Declaration on decolonization.  At the time the United Nations was established in 1945, there were 72 Non-Self-Governing Territories along with 11 Trust Territories.  The last Non-Self-Governing Territory that exercised the right to self-determination was East Timor, now known as Timor-Leste, which gained independence in 2002.

General Assembly resolution 1541 (XV) defines three ways in which a Non-Self-Governing Territory can attain a full measure of self-government, as envisioned in the United Nations Charter.  These are:  free association with an independent State as a result of free and voluntary choice by the people of the Territory expressed through an informed and democratic process; integration with an independent State on the basis of complete equality between the peoples of the Non-Self-Governing Territory and those of the independent State; and independence.

Recent Moves towards Self-Determination in Tokelau

The current process of constitutional development in Tokelau stems from the 1998 decision by the General Fono to endorse a comprehensive report entitled “Modern House of Tokelau”, which addressed the core issue for Tokelau in creating a constitutional framework:  how to construct a self-governing nation based on the atoll or village structure.

During recent years, New Zealand and Tokelau have worked through a series of issues such as:  identifying the values and principles that are the foundation for New Zealand and Tokelau’s relationship; confirming the terms under which New Zealand will provide ongoing economic and administrative assistance to Tokelau; identifying the principles underpinning such issues as Tokelau’s security and defence; Tokelau’s participation in regional and international affairs; the role of the Tokelauan community in New Zealand; and the decolonization process.

As a result of these considerations, in October 2004, Tokelau’s General Fono unanimously agreed, following extensive consultations in all three villages and on the basis of a recommendation of the Special Constitutional Committee, to formally explore with New Zealand the option of self-government in free association with New Zealand.  The Prime Minister of New Zealand welcomed this decision during a visit to Tokelau in August 2004, and assured Tokelau of New Zealand’s ongoing friendship and support as it moved towards a possible new status.  Work has been under way since then on the elaboration of a set of arrangements to implement [the response to] this decision, including the signing of the “Joint Statement on the Principles of Partnership” (setting out the rights and obligations of both partner countries and provides a solid platform for Tokelau's further constitutional and political development); a visit to Tokelau by New Zealand’s Governor-General in 2005 and again in 2007; and the formal transfer of the powers of the New Zealand Administrator to the three Village Councils of Tokelau.

A reworking of Tokelau’s public services around this new political structure has also been completed.  The main feature of this arrangement is that it puts the three villages squarely at the heart of Tokelau’s system of government and reaffirms the “pule” or traditional authority of the three Village Councils.

New Zealand has also used this intervening period to strengthen its support systems for Tokelau.  A “one-stop-shop” was established in Wellington, dealing with all matters relating to Tokelau.  Late in 2004, Tokelau’s International Trust Fund account was formally established, aiming to set Tokelau on a solid economic footing for the future, and New Zealand and Tokelau have signed multi-year economic support agreements.

The shape and content of a treaty of free association had already been worked out between New Zealand and Tokelau prior to the 2006 referendum.  The basis for Tokelau’s decision will be a draft Constitution (covering the self-government part of the formula) and a draft treaty with New Zealand (covering the “free association” arrangement).  These documents have been widely circulated in Tokelau.

The General Fono has decided that the question for the October 2007 referendum will be identical to the question that was posed in the February 2006 referendum.  In August 2005, the General Fono approved the text of a draft Treaty of Free Association between Tokelau and New Zealand as a basis for an act of self-determination.  It also appointed a Translation Committee and appointed a Referendum Commission.  Subsequently, in November 2005, the General Fono approved the translations of the draft Constitution and draft Treaty, and approved the draft referendum rules.  It was then agreed that an overall majority of two thirds of the valid votes cast would be required for a change in Tokelau’s status.  It was also decided that the voting should take place sequentially in Apia and on the three atolls.

Further Historical Background Information

For the first 50 years of New Zealand’s administration of Tokelau (1926-1976)  the administering Power’s focus was on ways of providing this isolated and scattered Territory with appropriate levels of services in areas such as health, education and shipping.  In many respects, Tokelau governed itself through its Village Councils and, towards the end of this period, the General Fono.  Information was disseminated from time to time on Tokelau’s rights under the United Nations Charter, and each year New Zealand reported to the United Nations on the situation in the Territory.  Consideration of Tokelau’s political future was, however, no more than intermittent. 

By contrast, the past 30 years have seen wave after wave of discussion and consultation -- as well as ongoing experimentation with different governance and public service systems -- as Tokelau has wrestled with the question of its future political status.

In 1976, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand appointed an Official Secretary as head of Tokelau’s Public Service.  The appointee was delegated the full powers of the Administrator, and was charged with involving Tokelau more closely in all decision-making.  He was also tasked with establishing a truly Tokelauan public service to work with Tokelau’s political authorities, and with engaging Tokelau in active consideration of its political future.

In that same year, the United Nations Special Committee on decolonization sent a first fact-finding mission to Tokelau.  Intensive discussions were held on each atoll and in New Zealand on the options open to Tokelau.  As mentioned above, a further four United Nations fact-finding missions visited Tokelau over the years, most recently in 2002.  In addition, the Chair of the Special Committee undertook a special visit to Tokelau in 2004 to meet with Tokelau’s Constitution Committee and General Fono. 

Each year, New Zealand has continued to report in detail to the Special Committee and the General Assembly on Tokelau’s situation, in compliance with Article 73e of the Charter.  Over the past decade, the practice has been for both the Administrator of Tokelau and Tokelau’s Ulu, or Head of Government, to appear in person before the Special Committee.  In recent years, both New Zealand and Tokelau have also been active participants in regional workshops on decolonization run by the Special Committee.  The texts of speeches made by representatives of New Zealand and Tokelau, as well as relevant decisions taken by the Special Committee, have been translated and given wide distribution in Tokelau.

Since 1976, the process of political consultation has been ongoing in Tokelau.  Meetings have been held at both village and national levels on various aspects of the political process.  New Zealand officials have spent weeks in Tokelau explaining and reviewing the options available to Tokelau.  Numerous visits have been made to Tokelau by politicians and constitutional lawyers for discussions on the direction of Tokelau’s political development.  Teams from Tokelau’s public service have spent weeks in the three villages discussing the way ahead.  The Constitution Committee has been in operation since 1992, producing draft texts of a constitution for consideration in each village and by the General Fono.  Information papers have been circulated at regular intervals.  In recent years, the elected Council for Ongoing Government has held meetings in each village specifically to discuss political issues.  Accounts of these meetings may be found in the annual working papers issued by the Secretariat on the basis of information provided by the administering Power.

It should be noted that this activity has been accompanied by ongoing experimentation with various forms of government structures and public service systems aimed at establishing how Tokelau might best run itself.  In 1994, the Administrator’s powers were formally delegated to the General Fono.  In that same year, the Ulu of Tokelau informed a United Nations Visiting Mission that Tokelau had begun actively considering an act of self-determination, with a preference for a future status of self-government in free association with New Zealand.  In 1996, the General Fono gained a lawmaking power, and in 1999, Tokelau took over full responsibility for its public service.  In 2003, the Administrator’s powers were transferred to the three Village Councils, which, in turn, sub-delegated to the General Fono responsibility for handling national issues such as external relations, fisheries policies and shipping.  At that point, Tokelau took on full responsibility for managing its budget, and each Village Council assumed full responsibility for running public services on its atoll.  Thus, by 2003, Tokelau had reached the point where it felt able to request, by unanimous vote of the General Fono, that the option of self-government in free association with New Zealand be actively explored with the New Zealand Government.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.