Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i


By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AFP, May 27) - A group of around 1500 Pacific Islanders living on three remote and tiny atolls claim to have become the most intensively consulted people in the world and after the latest discussion its leader is bemused at all the attention.

A United Nations seminar held in an out-of-the-way Papua New Guinean town of Madang last week spent three days contemplating a "new breeze" policy in which Tokelau, a New Zealand territory with a combined land area of 17.5 square kilometers (seven square miles), halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, is to hold an "act of self-determination" on the road to some kind of independence.

The Ulu, or Head of Tokelau, Patuki Isaako, said that when he was told to attend, his immediate thought was, "what have we done wrong?"

He went on to say, "One can argue that Tokelau is one of the most intensively consulted populace in the world in which children, men, women and even the elderly participate". The UN, through its Special Committee on Decolonization, also known as C-24, after the number of its members, is anxious to rid the world of the last remaining vestiges of colonialism by the end of the decade. It has a list of 16 territories around the world, virtually none of which wants to be independent to any degree. These include remote Pitcairn Island, with around 60 British subjects, and the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, which not only wants to remain British, but London fought Argentina for in 1982.

Others, like American Samoa and Guam, actively reject any involvement withC-24, while French Polynesia is not even on the list.

New Zealand, which made an international issue of French colonialism in New Caledonia, has however become embarrassed over finding itself on theC-24 list.

Tokelau, north of Samoa, has thus been put on the track to some kind of autonomy, despite the atolls having no airport or harbor and, Isaako notes, "few financial reserves and minimal revenue generating capacity".

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a message to the seminar reminding "the international community of its duty in bringing the process of decolonization to a successful conclusion."

And, as Isaako told the meeting, when the first UN delegation arrived in Tokelau in 1976, they were told "thank you for coming, have a good time but we are happy to stay as we are."

While New Zealand funds Tokelau and uses otherwise retired diplomats to administer the islands, much of the decolonisation work is paid for by the UN Development Program (UNDP). As some of the money includes funding for poverty elimination programs, it creates the irony of New Zealand, one of the world's richest nations, receiving development aid now totaling around US$2 million for some of its citizens.

Foreign Minister Phil Goff said that New Zealand takes "primary responsibility" for assisting Tokelau with economic support, although it was "well down the track to governing its own affairs.

"That being the case, it is important that Tokelau should feel free to establish its own relationships with other countries and with international organizations such as UNDP. These relationships may well include development assistance," Goff told AFP. "For New Zealand to try and restrict Tokelau from forming such relationships would indeed be neo-colonialist."

Before going to the UN meeting, Isaako issued a statement in which he questioned why the UN and New Zealand wanted to push Tokelau: "That we maybe committing genocide? Why do we want to do this? Is it to satisfy you or to satisfy us?

"Why would we want to declare to the international community we have self-determination? Is it going to feed our mouths, is it going to feed our children? What good is it for future generations? The answer to these questions and others is what we're looking for," he said a week ago.

Following the meeting he issued another statement expressing satisfaction with the UN and New Zealand, saying "Tokelau has given the term self-determination a new meaning".

Self-determination would be decided by Tokelauans, not by others: "This is the unique approach of Tokelau - the coral up approach."

He said a meeting in October would see a fine-tuning of plans to give Tokelau self-governing status in free association with New Zealand.

A week after the UN meeting in PNG papers released to AFP revealed Isaako unashamedly asking for money for a trust fund for Tokelau.

"So I am happy and ready to receive contributions from around the table, including UNDP," he told the meeting.

"New Zealand and Tokelau have already started the fund - 4.6 million dollars. Please don't let me go home empty handed!"

June 2, 2004

Agence France-Presse/Michael Field:

Copyright © 2004 Michael J Field

Go back to Pacific Islands Report: Graphics or Text Only. Email a friend the link to this item