Dr. Pierre-Christophe Pantz couldn’t tell me how he voted this year. It was a contentious and narrow vote, after all, and he works a government job. Besides, as a political scientist studying balances of power between different ethnic and social groups, it simply wouldn’t be right for him to offer an opinion on the referendum vote. 

The referendum vote?

Pantz wasn’t talking about this year’s United States presidential election—he was discussing the 2020 New Caledonia independence referendum, an equally, if not more, bitter vote that took place on Sunday, October 4. “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?” was the question asked to residents of the French overseas collectivity in the Pacific, over sixteen thousand kilometers away from Paris. The answer? No—for now.

Elections and referendums are a particularly sensitive topic in New Caledonia. This year’s was the second of three that were planned for the territory under the terms of the 1998 Nouméa Accord. The Accord brought decades of violent tensions between parties representing New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak plurality and pro-French groups to an end. In the first referendum, in 2018, the vote was 56.7 to 43.3 percent in favor of sticking with France. In this year’s, the vote was 53.3 to 46.7 percent in favor of sticking with France. Victory for the status quo, right? Not really: their narrowing vote share means anti-independence leaders don’t have much to look forward to in the next referendum in 2022. 

Of France’s leftover colonies, New Caledonia is somewhat unique. Only it and its distant Pacific neighbor, French Polynesia, currently have significant independence movements—the rest have been rather thoroughly integrated with the rest of France. In New Caledonia, Pantz relates this to continuing tensions between the Kanak and the French state. 

“New Caledonia is a peculiar situation among the overseas possessions,” Pantz wrote in an email correspondence with The Politic. “Those who consider themselves citizens of a colony are still in the minority (the independentists). What is problematic is that the independence camp is essentially embodied by the Kanak population, and not by the other communities.”

The complicated dimension of the independence struggle in New Caledonia is part of what makes the future so hard to predict. Voting in referendums is limited by stringent bans that disenfranchise much of the non-Kanak population. So even if there is a majority vote for independence in 2022—which Pantz is not convinced will happen—there’s only one thing he’s sure of: “What is clear is that [independence] will not bring any solution. As thirty years ago, there will always be two big blocks against each other.”

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In their efforts to steer towards a post-colonial solution in a post-colonial world, Pantz and New Caledonia aren’t alone. In 1946, near the end (and peak) of the colonial age, the United Nations (UN) released a list of non-self-governing territories (NSGTs). It had 72 names on it. In the wave of decolonization the globe witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s, dozens of colonial possessions achieved independence or autonomy and were removed from the list. Despite those strides, the list today isn’t empty and the Special Committee on Decolonization (the Special Committee) hasn’t closed up shop. By the UN’s count, 17 NSGTs remain.

Of these 17, Tokelau is administered by New Zealand; Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco; American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are territories of the United States; New Caledonia and French Polynesia are French; and the remaining ten, from the Caribbean to the Mid-Atlantic to the remote reaches of the Pacific, are controlled by the United Kingdom.

Perhaps the sun never set on the British Empire after all.

The territories on the NSGT list are placed there by a vote of the UN General Assembly upon recommendation of the Special Committee. The primary criteria for placement? That a territory’s people “have not yet attained a full measure of self-government.” Once that’s happened, a territory can be removed from the list, as Timor-Leste was in 2002. 

As should not be surprising, given the frequently byzantine workings of the UN, it’s not clear what constitutes self-government. In a recent case, French Polynesia was placed back on the list of NSGTs after fifty years when the country’s president filed a petition for it; the problem? The incoming government, elected in repudiation of the previous, pro-independence government, was rebuffed when it petitioned the UN to not place it on the list.

Which brings up an important question: why? Why would possessions in this postcolonial world choose to remain within the colonial fold—as New Caledonia repeatedly has? And perhaps more dramatically, who are the villains, if there are any at all?

The answers, as is the issue, are complicated.

Let’s start with the problem of what self-government means. It’s not restricted to total independence; Curaçao, a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Caribbean, is not on the list, despite being very much a vestige of the colonial age. Neither are Greenland, French Guiana, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, or Puerto Rico, even though all were to some extent born from colonialism. The UN considers autonomy and internal self-rule sufficient for self-government, meaning all of these regions meet can be called self-governing. But Bermuda and Gibraltar, both possessions of the U.K. that are on the NSGT list, also consider themselves internally self-governing. As do the Falkland Islands. As do St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, the British Virgin Islands, and (sometimes) French Polynesia.

For a plurality of states on the NSGT list, the status quo is something they accept, and, in some cases, that they actively embrace. Gibraltar, for example, has lobbied long and hard for its removal from the NSGT list—to the extent that its Chief Minister told the UN to simply tell it what it needed to change in its constitution to get off the list, and it would do it. The Falkland Islands saw only three residents vote for any consideration of a status change in a 2013 referendum. And while the remainder of these territories frequently debate their status (as Bermuda often does), few advocate for sovereign independence, at least not all that soon (like Anguilla and the Cayman Islands). Residents of U.S. territories, for example, have expressed far more support for statehood and full citizens’ rights than independence or free association.

The premier example of this indifferent or even negative attitude towards change is Tokelau, which held referendums on whether or not to become a state in free association with New Zealand in 2006 and 2007. Despite overwhelming support from the UN and New Zealand for getting Tokelau off the list, many Tokelauans did not feel the same urgency; in both referendums, the two-thirds majority required to end the territory’s dependent status simply wasn’t achieved.

Out of the 17 NSGTs, there are, of course, some exceptions to accepting the status quo. New Caledonia and French Polynesia, as we’ve seen, have active independence movements and calls for change, as does Western Sahara, a unique disputed territory claimed by Morocco.

“France has put a lot of resources and a lot of diplomatic attention into integrating these overseas departments and collectivities into the state, giving them political rights [and] in the case of New Caledonia, pouring so much money into trying to raise living standards,” Dr. Kerryn Baker of Australian National University told The Politic in an interview. 

“It’s interesting, because on the one hand, it’s like ‘Why do you need all of these overseas territories, especially if they’re so expensive?’” But Baker notes that, “there’s this principle of the indivisibility of the French republic, and those overseas territories are a part of that. In terms of French political culture, every French citizen is the same, whether they’re in [French] Guiana or Wallis and Futuna [a small Pacific territory] or Paris.” 

However, both New Caledonia and French Polynesia are still in possession of one of the UN’s most hallowed principles: the right to self-determination. While France has focused on the work of integration into the republic, it also hasn’t blocked the way to independence since the signing of the Nouméa Accord. Pantz said, “France seeks above all a favorable and peaceful exit from this political process [in New Caledonia].” 

For many of the UN’s NSGTs, it simply doesn’t seem worth it to pursue independence right now. That’s not because villainous European powers hold them in bondage. It’s because it doesn’t make economic sense to be an independent nation of 1500 people in the mid-Pacific; political sense to trade security and opportunity for an uncertain independent future; or social sense to raise the specter of intra-group division by advocating independence. Whether they’re choosing to remain in empire or seeking to pursue a path towards independence, most residents of most territories on the NSGT list are in fact ultimately exercising—and free to exercise—self-determination.

“The principle of self-determination is that the people choose,” Baker pointed out. “It doesn’t necessarily follow that they choose independence. The whole point is that you have a status that everyone’s happy with, whether that’s a territory or being independent or something else.”

If an NSGT isn’t fine with their status quo, the UN should naturally support them in their efforts to reach greater autonomy or independence. And if an NSGT is fine with the status quo—shouldn’t the UN be fine with that, too?

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This is where things get messy—or messier. Among the states that sit on the Special Committee are such paragons as the People’s Republic of China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Russia, and India—the selfsame states that could very easily be accused of doing some post-colonial colonizing of their own. When one looks at the patterns of settlement, occupation, and lack of representation in China’s Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia; in Indonesia’s Papua and West Papua provinces; in Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville, which almost entirely voted for independence in 2019; in Russia’s Chechnya and other restive republics; and in Indian Kashmir, there’s an awful similarity to the colonial patterns of European powers. The major differences? The territories are less far afield, the colonialism has been melded with ethnic tension and separatist struggles, and the way we think has failed to catch up.

Here’s what I mean. As self-choice has been exercised and colonies decolonized in the post-World War II world, we’ve kept thinking about colonialism as something Europeans (and their mostly white former colonies) do to people with darker skin. The focus of the Special Committee—on legacy colonies with populations as low as 43 people (in the case of Pitcairn)—represents that. But that narrow definition, and the resulting focus, means we keep throwing away the opportunity to realize that colonialism, like the times, has changed. 

Today’s colonial efforts have been melded with issues of ethnicity, separatism, and freedom. It’s not clear, for example, what makes China’s resettlement of Han Chinese in Xinjiang, exploitation of Uighurs as a labor force, and suppression of Uighur identity all that different from French past settler colonialism, enslavement and exploitation of the Kanak, and usage of New Caledonia as a penal colony—except that we’ve been conditioned to think of colonialism as something of which only vestiges remain. The truth is more complicated: colonialism today is part and parcel of what we now characterize as “ethnic tensions,” or “separatist movements,” or “restive provinces,” or “modern-day concentration camps.” Colonialism’s still here, but it’s not what it used to be—and the countries keeping us focused on the old definition, and old issues, are the same ones whose actions we should really be keeping a careful eye on today.

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The UN has devoted millions over the years to pressure countries to decolonize, to hold referendums, to end colonialism once and for all. For decades, those efforts have done a good deal of good. Now, though, the UN either needs to update its focus or realize that it’s time for the Special Committee to close its doors. 

“[In Greenland,] independence is going to happen one day… it’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen,” said Catherina Hvistendahl, First Secretary of the Greenland Representation in Washington, D.C., in an interview with The Politic. Greenland is one of dozens of colonial legacies that doesn’t fall under the Special Committee’s purview, alongside places such as Puerto Rico and Curaçao. These are all regions that are, by the UN’s definition, self-governing—Greenland especially is highly autonomous. But that doesn’t mean they don’t face challenges associated with their colonial pasts. Nor does it mean they don’t have issues that would benefit from the Special Committee’s aid, whether it’s charting Greenland’s path to full independence, Puerto Rican support for statehood, or figuring out what to do about Curaçao’s not-yet-quiescent independence party.

On the other end of the colonial spectrum, regions like Xinjiang and Bougainville are the new front of decolonization efforts. For the most part, the Special Committee ignores them completely, allowing China to spend years resettling thousands of Han Chinese soldiers in Xinjiang (a colonial trick as old as the Romans) and failing to engage as Bougainville prepares for a difficult process of turning popular will into an actual separation from Papua New Guinea.

All this to say, simply, that the Special Committee—and the legitimacy of the UN as an advocate for self-determination—are falling by the wayside in a world that is changing far more rapidly than the global bureaucracy has kept up with. There’s a reason Robert Aisi, Papua New Guinea’s former Permanent Representative to the UN, was asked by colleagues, “The committee’s still not meeting, is it?” in the lead up to the 2006 Tokelau referendum.

Baker said, “That principle of self-determination should be fundamental in how states deal with their territories. But at the same time, it’s not always going to be an easy answer. And you can see that with Tokelau, in the case of New Zealand. New Zealand’s been desperately trying to get off the UN list for decolonization, and move Tokelau to a different status. But people in Tokelau don’t really benefit from it.”

The risk, Baker noted, is that “You can force these legal processes on people. But it’s not a substitute for the real concerns and the actual practicalities of, ‘What would self-government look like for a place that has 1200 people and no airfield and no functioning port?’ What does it even mean?”

Good question. From what I can tell: not a whole lot.

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