The successful bid for a rotating seat on the UN Security Council places Australia in an interesting place. Over the next few years, we'll be in the spotlight as the United Nations addresses hot-button international issues: maritime disputes between China and its Asia-Pacific neighbours; the prospects for Palestinian statehood; negotiations for a global climate treaty and a new compact to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.
But closer engagement with the United Nations will also create a few thorny dilemmas on issues that receive less international attention.
One often ignored issue is the future of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation and the lack of international action to complete the UN agenda on self-determination and political independence. Decolonisation was a major achievement for the UN in the twentieth century, but international attention on the issue faded after the independence of most African colonies on the UN list of non-self-governing territories (with the remaining exception of Western Sahara).
Even as international debates on statehood are reviving, from South Sudan to Scotland and Catalonia, the UN lacks the capacity to support the remaining territories seeking full sovereign independence or free association with their administering power. The United States and other administering powers regularly intervene at UN budgetary committees in favour of reducing resources for work on decolonisation. The Special Committee and UN Decolonisation Unit have been shunted aside in the UN bureaucracy, lacking the staff and finances to complete their mandate. We're into the third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, with limited results from two previous decades since 1990.
For Australia, however, the issue is not going away. Just as East Timor's political transition has engaged Canberra for decades, so the issue of self-determination in neighbouring island territories remains on the regional agenda.
This is made more complex by the varying status of self-determination struggles in our region under international law. Firstly, there are cases of nineteenth century "blue-water" colonialism by Western powers, such as France (New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna), the United States (Guam and American Samoa), Britain (Pitcairn) and New Zealand (Tokelau).
There are also independence struggles inside post-colonial nations which fall outside the existing UN mandate, such as the long-running campaign by West Papuan nationalists in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, or Bougainville's movement for independence from Papua New Guinea.
The issue of nationalism and statehood across Melanesia will soon be bumped up the regional agenda by a coincidence of events. New Caledonia is scheduled to hold a referendum on its political status between 2014-18 and Bougainville is coming to the end of its 10-year autonomy transition in 2015. New Caledonia, Fiji and Indonesia are all scheduled to hold elections in 2014.
Indonesian human rights abuses will keep the pot boiling in Jayapura, and there are plenty of flashpoints that could cause heartburn for relations between Canberra, Jakarta and Port Moresby. For example, what would happen if a boatload of West Papuan asylum seekers arrived in Australian waters in the midst of the 2014 Indonesian election campaign? Will they be towed back to Indonesia or end up in Nauru or Manus?
There are a number of arguments against Canberra allocating resources to the decolonisation agenda: small island developing states have little chance of independence in a globalised, interdependent world; decolonisation would create lots of "fragile states" on Australia's "doorstep"; talking self-determination would alienate key regional partners like Indonesia, France and the United States. Beyond this, territories like Pitcairn and Tokelau are too small to be functioning sovereign states.
But these arguments carry little weight for Melanesian nationalist movements, which argue that, given their population, minerals and maritime wealth, they could become significant states in the islands region. The rise of Asia has broadened the playing field beyond reliance on former colonial powers, with China and other Asian powers searching for energy, timber and minerals. Massive nickel reserves in New Caledonia, the Freeport mine in West Papua and the Panguna mine in Bougainville would all give post-colonial governments something to bargain with (a reality reflected in the battle currently being played out between China, Australia and independent East Timor over its Timor Gap oil reserves).
The leverage provided by natural resources has been shown in New Caledonia's Northern Province, where independence leader Paul Neaoutyine and businessman Andre Dang have already negotiated contracts with South Korea and China while building a massive nickel smelter, industrial zone and port complex at Koniambo and Vavouto. The transformation of the north of New Caledonia's main island suggests that there are options for economic development beyond ongoing French subsidies.
A key diplomatic dilemma for Australia is that Fiji and Papua New Guinea are both active members of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. At odds with Canberra over democratic and civil rights, the Bainimarama regime has a range of diplomatic platforms to put Australia on the spot, especially as New Caledonia's FLNKS independence movement (a fellow member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group) raises the stakes in the lead up to elections in 2014. Fiji has joined the Non-Aligned Movement, has just been appointed as chair of the "Group of 77 plus China", and is revitalising regional diplomacy through the newly formed Group of Asia and Pacific Small Island Developing States within the UN system (A legacy of our colonial heritage, we've just won the UNSC seat as a member of the Western Europe and Others Group, not this Asia-Pacific bloc).
Now that Australia will join France, the United States and the United Kingdom on the UN high table next year, will our government address this issue?
There are a number of ways that the UN decolonisation agenda could be advanced, giving some substance to the process beyond current rituals of pious debate and token resolutions. International experts like Carlyle Corbin have flagged a number of practical measures, including a case-by-case work program for each territory, analysis of the ownership of natural resources, visiting missions, better collaboration with UN agencies (WHO, UNDP etc) and support to political education processes.
Corbin has advocated the use of an independent expert to undertake research and analysis on the work program, which had been mandated in the first and second international decades for decolonisation but not undertaken. A systematic assessment of the (lack of) implementation of past decolonisation resolutions would establish a baseline for work to follow.
Part two of Nic Maclellan's series on decolonisation, Australia and the UN will appear on Friday.
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