Thursday, May 30, 2013

Decolonizing Dependencies

My first experience with the UN wasn't very useful or inspiring. Chamorros and representatives of Guam have been going to the United Nations to testify before the 4th Committee for more than 30 years. I became one of them in 2007.

Prior to testifying I already knew quite a bit about the UN process and so I wasn't expecting that my testimony would make much of a difference. Those who come from colonies or non-self-governing territories like Guam don't get representation at the UN, but they do get a few chances to let their concerns be heard. The 4th Committee is the most auspicious of such occasions. You get to testify in a large room in front of delegates from the entire world.

But the potential for the moment means little in terms of its actual effect. The day I testified it was like moving through an assembly line. Names were called. Testimonies given. Thanks given for the testimony. Move on, next name. It went on like that for hours. There were no questions asked while I was there. No dialogue. Nothing. I worked hard on my testimony, crafting it as best as I could to say as much as I could within the short 7 minute time frame they had given me. After I was done, I felt strangely cheated. Why did I work so hard on this statement when the only purpose it served was to be recorded. This wasn't a forum where reality was actually effected. I felt I could have gone up there and simply said every curse word or disgusting thought I could imagine, and no comments would have been offered and I would have received a "thank you" for my intervention.

Although the world has pretty much come to a consensus that colonization was wrong, this does not help much in terms of eradicating it from the world. The United Nations has done a very good job overall in terms of helping move colonies towards decolonization but in the past 30 years they have stalled significantly. One of the major reasons for this stagnation is the fact that the remaining colonies that the UN has listed, are primarily small islands. As I have written on this blog many times before islands function differently in relation to the rest of the world. They are seen as being fundamentally different because of the way they are "isolated," "cut off" or "distant."

Islands are ideal places for testing missiles, for hiding bases, and even for feeling like you are getting away from the world and enjoying tourist fantasies. Because of their alleged disconnect they are in general treated differently, and if they are small, they are naturally treated as less important.

As most people understand themselves as land-based and continent based, they see islands as being a lesser form of existence. One which because of them being cut off and surrounding by imposing waters, must be more dependent and less sustainable than land-loving societies.  The water is seen as something that does not connect, but something that bars and blocks and inhibits. This is why even though the world is against colonization, people can still calmly and rationally argue that it should still exist or can still exist since the remaining colonies in the world cannot survive on their own. Because of the nature of their geography and reality, they can never make it on their own, so colonialism may be necessary to take care of these place that aren't really just territories, but rather dependencies.

Dependency is a dangerous word since it has the ability to make something appear to be true beyond true. When you call a place like Guam a dependency, and therefore imply that its existence can best be understood and determined through a larger power who it feeds off of in a subordinate and dependent way, most people don't need to know much about Guam in order to make judgements about it. The true difficultly for islands is that even prior to someone knowing anything about you, they most likely have already made several assumptions about what you must be like because you are an island. The term dependency is so dangerous because it requires no knowledge whatsoever. If you refer to an island as a dependency, it makes perfect sense since islands are cut off from the world and need those who live on solid and dependable continents to help them out.

Another reason why decolonization is so stagnant lately at the UN level is because the colonies that are left in the world primarily belong to large countries that don't want anyone else telling them what to do. The United States and the United Kingdom for example are two administering powers that have plenty of island colonies between them. The United States however doesn't even try to make the usual dependency arguments, but simply doesn't participate.

It is already tough enough to decolonize small places that everyone assumes have no vitality and no ability except to suck social programs from the teat of their colonizer. But to mix in recalcitrant colonizers makes it impossible for anything to take place. The UN has always played a dual role of being an arbiter meant to protect the sovereignty of nations, but also be an interloper who can sometimes infringe on the right of nations in the name of something universal. But with decolonization the UN has shown little willingness to interfere with colonies if their colonizer is not engaged with the UN process. This is a recipe for oblivion for Guam since it could remain in this status forever since the United States hasn't given any indication that it wants to change Guam's political status.

The United Nations has already spent two decades trying to eradicate colonialism from the world. During that time they were able to decolonize a single territory, leaving 16 left. In 2013, the UN is several years into their third decade of trying to rid the world of colonialism. Just this month a new colony was added to the list of non-self-governing territories, French Polynesia.

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