Decolonization: How the UN still hasn’t got the ‘Question of Tokelau’
Last month [June 2017], the national leader of Tokelau, Mr Siopili Perez made the annual trek to New York to report to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization about his country’s progress towards making an ‘act of self-determination’. A trek that’s been made since 2005.
Tokelau is a non self-governing territory of New Zealand since 1926, and administered by New Zealand under the Tokelau Act in 1948.
It is one of 17 non self-governing territories recognized by the United Nations. But their lack of progress towards making an ‘act of self-determination’ over the past two-and-a-half decades has leveled criticism on the United Nations in general and the UN Special Committee on Decolonization for the lack of results.
One of the main criticism is that after three separate ‘Decades for the Eradication of Colonialism’ none of the remaining territories have made an ‘act of self-determination. The only one to have made the step to a sovereign state in those times was East Timor on 20 May 2002.
And this is why the case of Tokelau is unique amongst the 17 remaining territories, it does not have any internal struggles or struggles with its administering country New Zealand. Unlike the situations in Gibraltar and West Sahara to name two.
In fact, the Tokelau-New Zealand relationship has been lauded as a model by the United Nations for the other territories and their administering countries to follow. “I encourage you to follow the example of New Zealand and Tokelau, whose partnership had shown what close cooperation could achieve,” announced former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon back in 2009.
This fact is important because of what it means. That reasons or causal factors for the lack of progress in the ‘case of Tokelau’ will be due directly to efforts of the UN and the Special Committee on Decolonization for the most part.
Which is why the record of Mr Perez’s address and essence of his message by the Special Committee highlight there is still a lack of understanding by the UN as to why Tokelau, even after two referenda, has not agreed to an act of self-determination. The UN record even spelt part of Mr Perez’s title incorrectly [Aleki instead of Aliki].
Recorded the UN: “ALEKI FAIPULE SIOPILI PEREZ, Titular Head of Tokelau, said the Territory had been practising self-governance for quite some time and had discovered that harmonizing the governance of three distinct villages was the biggest challenge.”
This interpretation led to a remark from the representative of Iran according to the UN: “The representative of Iran noted that the population of Tokelau stood at 1,499 people, although more than 7,000 of the Territory’s people lived in New Zealand. He noted that each atoll had its own administrative centre, which would make self-governance difficult.”
The remark by the member from Iran in effect confirmed one of the main reasons why Tokelau has refused to progress to an act of self-determination. As Mr Perez highlighted in his speech, independent states are sometimes confused about the meaning of the terms self-determination and self-government when they discuss decolonization, and Tokelau in particular.
Said Mr Perez, “Viewing Tokelau from a ‘large atoll’ state context will be the basis for evaluating our case, [and] there can be confusion between self-government and self determination.
“For Tokelau, practise of, and experience in self-government, is important in itself. And even more so, when the governance model is founded on Tokelau’s culture and not one that is imported from abroad.”
Which is the crux of Tokelau’s message to the United Nations. That in the UN’s records, ‘harmonizing the governance of three distinct villages was the biggest challenge’ is not the correct interpretation. Same to the member from Iran’s remark, ‘that each atoll had its own administrative centre, which would make self-governance difficult’ – which is not the difficulty at all.
The correct interpretation according to Mr Perez is for the UN Special Committee on Decolonization to rise up to the challenge: “Tokelau must be supported to establish her own governance structure and modern needs which may not be fully comprehended by others. Done correctly and confidently self-government should ultimately lead to self-determination. At that later stage, this special Committee as well as the Government of New Zealand have a direct interest.”
The lesson the UN needs to learn from, according to Mr Perez, “Building confidence in self-government stands to be the best preparation for self-determination as and when the decision to take that step is made. This lesson is stronger for Tokelau when the Taupulega, General Fono, as it is structured today, the Council of the Ongoing Government [of Tokelau] represents the ordinary fishermen and weavers new wave of decision making so there is a sense in which they too are seen as important organs of governance.
“With the Tokelau Public Service Commission now in place, it is able to provide support and encouragement to the incoming government that started their new three-year electoral cycle this year.”
This is the way forward that Tokelau says will build confidence and resilience to be able to “adjust herself to a rapidly changing world but yet stay grounded on her founding principles of the FakaTokelau or Tokelau Way. A modern Tokelau strengthened through robust service delivery to raise the quality of life with Tokelauan characteristics,” said Mr Perez.
He highlighted Tokelau’s forward movement on this path by emphasizing its efforts, in partnership with the Government of New Zealand to improve the quality of education; a special mention of its first Non-Communicable Disease summit held in May; launch of a 4G mobile/broadband network; and fishing revenues that have increased markedly in recent years, thanks to assistance from the Government of New Zealand.”
In summary, Mr Perez stated, “It is about ‘learning by doing’.”
And Tokelau should be given the opportunity and support to pursue this approach. After all, the President of the United States of America, Mr Donald Trump has been given the exact same leeway in order to run the world’s most powerful country.
Just down the road from UN heaquarters on 9 June 2017, House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked about ousted FBI Director James Comey’s account that Trump pushed him to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Mr Ryan said the FBI needs to be independent and “the president is new at this.”
Mr Ryan later added, “He’s learning as he goes.”