Decolonising Gibraltar: the case for the “fourth option”

Gibraltar is one of seventeen non-self-governing territories on the UN’s decolonisation list. Dr Joseph Garcia explores Gibraltar’s place in the colonial picture and makes the case for embracing “self-determination” 

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Gibraltar is one of seventeen colonies left in the world. These are now more politely termed “Non-Self-Governing Territories” by the United Nations.

These comparatively small territories are what remains of the huge colonial empires that once straddled the globe. There was a surge towards decolonisation after the Second World War when large parts of the planet inhabited by millions of people determined to go their own way. This process was carried out under the supervision of the United Nations Committee on Decolonisation which held a list of territories and slowly went down the list striking them off.

Today there are seventeen territories on that same list which is held by that same UN Committee, known as the Committee of 24. Eleven of the seventeen territories are British. Gibraltar is one of them.

This is, according to the UN, the “Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism”. The first decade ended in 2000 and the second in 2010. In that time, only East Timor was taken off the list bringing the number down to sixteen. However, the French added New Caledonia back on the list recently, raising the number back up to seventeen again. Instead of eradicating colonialism, therefore, the UN has seen it remain level.

In some cases, it is not for want of trying. The people of Tokelau, (population 1411) which is administered by New Zealand, have twice rejected the form of political emancipation that was offered to them. Bermuda has also voted against independence in the past. In cases like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, the United Nations simply does not want to know. The harsh reality is that they have often kow-towed to the claims on sovereignty from Spain and Argentina and placed this before the wishes of the inhabitants of the territories when those wishes should be sacrosanct.

There are four options for a territory like Gibraltar to be removed from this famous list. The first route is independence. This is the option that most of the world chose in those days after World War Two, some parts more quietly than others. The second route is known as free association. This provides for a Non-Self-Governing Territory to be removed from the list by choosing to freely associate itself with a sovereign state. There are examples of this in the relationship between the Cook Islands with New Zealand and Puerto Rico with the United States. The US also entered into what is known as the Compact of Micronesia through which many small Pacific islands signed up to what is essentially free association with the United States.

The third option is integration. This means that the territory, wherever it might be geographically in the world, is politically and administratively integrated into a sovereign state. This is the route that the French, the Dutch and the Spanish have chosen to take with some of their former colonies. Therefore the French territories in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean are part of France. Their inhabitants vote in French elections and in European elections. The Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla, for example, which are geographically in Africa, are also considered part of Spain and part of Europe.

Integration, at least in the past, has been something that the United Kingdom has not touched with a barge pole after this was offered to Malta and then to Rhodesia and the experiment did not work at the time.

In 1970, in Resolution 2625(XV), the United Nations included a new formula for decolonisation which is known, in Gibraltar at least, as the “Fourth Option”, coming as it did about a decade after the other three. This allows for decolonisation through the principle of self-determination by a colonial people freely and democratically choosing a tailor-made solution. This could prove important to the territories that remain on the list as it would allow the freedom to evolve into a status which is determined by their peculiar circumstances.

Pursuing this option with the United Nations has been difficult to say the least. In 2006 Gibraltar adopted a new constitution which was born under this “Fourth Option” concept. It maintained Gibraltar’s historic links with the British Crown, Parliament and People and the country’s position inside the European Union. However, the UN have been reluctant to engage with Gibraltar in a discussion on this framework and to establish what else is required for Gibraltar to be removed from the list.

The guardians of the principles contained in Charter of the United Nations do not want to upset Spain. The position of the Spanish Government is that the people of Gibraltar do not have the right to self-determination, that they should have no say on the future of the territory and that Gibraltar belongs to Spain.

 The people of Gibraltar, for their part, are adamant that the future of Gibraltar can only be freely and democratically decided by the people of Gibraltar. They feel that in the modern, democratic Europe in which we live there can be no other way.

The change of Government in Spain at the end of 2011 has seen a more hard-line approach towards the small territory. A Trilateral Forum for dialogue was set up in 2004 which allowed for Gibraltar, the United Kingdom and Spain to discuss matters of common interest. The present Spanish Government unilaterally abandoned the Forum upon their election leaving Gibraltar and the UK sitting at the table alone. This means that there is currently no framework in which issues of common interest to all the parties can be raised. Madrid has also embarked on a policy of restrictions on Gibraltar by land, air and sea. This can lead to lengthy delays for persons crossing the border. There have been hundreds of incursions into Gibraltar waters by Spanish warships and patrol boats and Madrid continues to undermine the position of Gibraltar airport inside the European Union.

Gibraltar has seen it all before and we have seen it off before. This hostile climate is a reminder to many of the campaign waged against the Rock by Spanish dictator General Franco in the 1960s. Franco predicted that Gibraltar would fall like a ripe fruit when faced by his two-pronged approach of restrictions at the border and international pressure at the United Nations. This policy of coercion failed then and it will fail now.

Every year on 10 September the people of Gibraltar take to the streets in their thousands dressed in the national colours of red and white. Last year, the event included a personal statement of support for Gibraltar from UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

National Day sends the important message that Gibraltar (as indeed the Falkland Islands) are no different to any other colonial territory and that the path to their future decolonised status should be determined no differently from that of any other territory that has gone before. In this day and age this means that what people want is what people should get. The United Nations, Spain and others should understand and take note that this is what democracy is all about.

 Dr Joseph Garcia MP is Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar and author of “Gibraltar: The Making of a People 1940-1988”