Whither the status quo?

New Caledonia and the curious tale of sovereignty

“Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote … the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories…” – Article 73, Declaration Regarding Non-Self Governing Territories, Charter of The United Nations

I have a modest request: could we please replace the word “status” with “condition?” I’ve had enough of status reports, status conferences, status updates. Political status. Economic status.

Condition is more austere. Condition evokes Camus as he grappled with existentialism, or Malraux as he tried to make sense of human impulse. (Please don’t accuse me of being astute; the word “condition” is after all in the title of his most famous work, Le Condition Humaine, translated as Man’s Fate.) Status implies that something can be done, or is being done, or will be done about the situation at hand. The patient’s status. Your immigration status. Marital status. Condition implies permanence. Immutable condition, my constitutional law professor would cite while asking unanswerable questions and getting angry when we wouldn’t answer.

In a recent election, 56 percent of the voters of New Caledonia, an island “collectivity” 750 miles off the eastern coast of Australia, voted to remain part of France. Regardless of the specific term used, New Caledonia is what the United Nations considers a “non-self-governing territory.” Under a series of Accords reached in the late 1990s, up to three referenda on independence are to be held. Officially, these will determine who exercises “final sovereign powers” of defense, foreign affairs, currency, justice, and public order. This vote was the first, possibly leaving the relationship an unsettled matter.

Article 73 was adopted in 1946. We are approaching the 21st Century’s third decade. That status is sounding more like a condition.

Which raises the thorny notion of sovereignty. Underlying the philosophies of contemporary politics is a notion that nations owe certain duties to their citizens. Asylum, for instance, is defined as providing protection to those fleeing their homes for fear of harm due to the inability to avail themselves of the protection of their home nation. What to make of sovereign that cannot, or will not, exercise such duties? I often refer to such as a “Republic in name only,” and I don’t generally mean it as a compliment. Is it really an expression of sovereignty to switch allegiances away from one benefactor to replace it with another, any more than is a teenager who leaves his father’s house to stay in his mother’s house asserting independence?

In other words, exercising the five “final sovereign powers” requires achieving the daunting task of transforming a “juridical” sovereign (i.e. congratulations, you are now a legal state”) into an “empirical” one (i.e. “you are now exercising measurable results of statehood jurisdiction your territory, presumably based on notions of political legitimacy.)

Try managing your own currency sometime.

The UN currently considers 17 locales to be non-self governing, which include Guam, the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa. At the time of the UN’s inception, which obviously coincides with the creation of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, “Small Island Developing States” was not a distinct concept (there are currently 50). Virtually every non-self-governing territory is a small island developing state; the bulk of the exclusions are those within the British Commonwealth.

The immutable status of humanity. The human status. Doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Which brings us to Britain and the option to exit the European Union via the “Brexit” vote, another term I truly despise. Prior to this, I never heard mention of Britain’s status with the EU.

Repercussions in the Pacific are clear as communities wrangle with the question of whether they can exercise essential sovereignty, or whether they simply want a new benefactor. A greater challenge lies when a political subdivision, rather than an administrative unit of a sovereign state, desires a new condition. An essential question needs to be whether such a condition would lead to greater sovereignty, or whether it would turn a new benefactor into a new administrator.

Many saw the Brexit vote as a symbol of a new era of crumbled alliances and a go-it-alone notion of sovereignty.

Except that, for now at least, New Caledonia has voted in favor of the status quo.

Maybe status does work, after all.

Click here to subscribe to our digital edition

Gabriel McCoard worked for a regional NGO in Chuuk. He likes to write about the world disorder, and If he ever gets enough bandwidth, his blog, the sunburnchronicles, will be fully functioning. Send feedback to gabrieljmccoard@hotmail.com