The military coups in three former French colonies in West Africa—Burkina Faso, Mali, and most recently Niger—have turned the spotlight to one of the UN’s lesser-known mandates: the decolonization of “non-self-governing territories” (NSGTs).
Last May, a United Nations forum on decolonization, which took place in Bali, Indonesia, declared that top priority must be given to overcoming the many challenges facing the world’s 17 remaining NSGTs “to avoid undoing much of the progress achieved towards sustainable development and self-determination.”
When the UN was founded in 1945, some 750 million people, nearly a third of the world’s population, lived in “territories” dependent on colonial powers.
Today, according to the UN, fewer than 2 million people live under colonial rule in the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories.
The wave of decolonization, which changed the face of the planet, was born with the UN and described as the world body’s “first great success”.
The 17 non-self-governing territories include Western Sahara, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Island, Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Saint Helena, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, American Samoa, French Polynesia, Guam, New Caledonia, Pitcairn, and Tokelau.
The struggle for independence or self-determination—whether in Palestine, Eritrea, South Sudan, or most famously, Algeria—was hard fought and largely one-sided, with small arms and hand-made bombs against fighter planes, combat helicopters, missiles, and battle tanks.
A major armed conflict between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (NLF), from 1954 to 1962, which led to Algeria’s independence from France, represented “the bloodiest example of France’s colonial history on the African continent”, with approximately 1.5 million Algerians killed and millions more displaced in the eight-year struggle for independence.
While France was accused of using its air force to napalm civilians in the countryside, the Algerians were accused of using handmade bombs hidden in women’s handbags and left surreptitiously in cafés, restaurants, and public places frequented by French nationals living in occupied territory.
In one of the memorable scenes in the 1966 cinematic Oscar-winning classic “The Battle of Algiers,” directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, which re-created Algeria’s war of independence, a handcuffed leader of the NLF, Ben M’Hidi, is brought before a group of highly partisan French journalists for interrogation.
One of the journalists asks M’Hidi: “Don’t you think it is a bit cowardly to use women’s handbags and baskets to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people [in cafés and nightclubs?”
Responding with equal bluntness, the Algerian insurgent retorts: “And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on unarmed villages on a thousand times more innocent victims?”
“Of course, if we had your fighter planes, it would be a lot easier for us,” he adds rather sarcastically. “Give us your bombers, and you can have our handbags and baskets.”
Meanwhile, a video message from Secretary-General António Guterres last May urged a focus on “the aspirations and needs of the Territories on a case-by-case basis”—including innovative steps to “ensure the Territories have the resources and support they need to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), build resilience, and invest in their future”.
“New pathways for stronger cooperation between the Territories, administering Powers and key stakeholders” are needed to turn the tide on the many challenges the Territories are facing, the Secretary-General said, including “small islands on the frontlines of the climate emergency,” he said.
Starting in 1990, on the 30th anniversary of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, the United Nations has declared four consecutive international decades for the eradication of colonialism.
The UN is now in the Fourth International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (2021 – 2030).
Menissa Rambally (Saint Lucia), Chair of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization, known as the “C-24”, opened the 2023 regional seminar last June and declared its main theme “Innovative steps to ensure the attainment of the SDGs in the Non-Self-Governing Territories”.
“Such pathways are crucial to recovering from the impact of the pandemic on health care, education, and income that has been “far-reaching and unprecedented in the last 30 years”, she said.
Addressing a meeting of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization in February 2019, Guterres said decolonization helped transform the United Nations membership, propelling the Organization’s growth from 51 original members to 193 today.
Decolonization is one of the most significant chapters of the Organization’s history. But he pointed out this story is still being written, as 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories remain.
“Each deserves attention. Each still waits to attain self-government, in accordance with Chapter [XI] of the United Nations Charter, the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, and relevant UN resolutions.”
*This article contains excerpts from a book on the United Nations titled “No Comment – And Don’t Quote me on That” available on Amazon. Thalif Deen, the author of the book, is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based IDN, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions.