IIn 2006, two lacquered wooden chests and a box of champagne were transported 507 km from Samoa to Tokelau, a collection of atolls scattered across the Pacific that are home to 1,500 people. For three days, chests were carried between atolls to collect ballots in a referendum on whether Tokelau should finally move towards self-government.
Since 1946, Tokelau, one of the most remote places in the world, has been classified by the United Nations as a non-self-governing dependent territory – a colony. First colonized by Great Britain in 1877, Tokelau was essentially handed over to New Zealand in 1925, which has administered it ever since.
Over the next century, decolonization movements accelerated globally, and the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories was reduced from 72 to 17. Officials from both New Zealand and the UN expected that in 2006 Tokelau would further reduce the number of non-self-governing territories. ready; the box of champagne was brought in in anticipation of a “Yes” vote.
Those hopes were dashed. The referendum fell 36 votes short of the required two-thirds majority. The champagne was stored. It became clear that while New Zealand and the UN were eager for Tokelau’s self-determination, some from Tokelau were confused and concerned. Although the self-government proposal (an intermediate step before independence) would have implied that Tokelau maintained a close political relationship with New Zealand, a resident of the Atafu Atoll explained at the time that “there is fear everywhere [that] after 10 years, New Zealand might say, ‘Okay, you’re ready to start on your own.’ After a second failed attempt in 2007, discussions about self-government practically disappeared. According to Kelihiano Kalolo, the Ulu-o-Tokelau (national leader), “We haven’t talked about this for quite some time … No one talks about it.”
That will change in December, when Kalolo will reinvigorate the self-government debate by introducing a document to the Tokelau general fono (parliament) prompting Tokelaus to envision a new future for the atolls ahead of the New Zealand government’s centennial in 2025. His proposal represents the latest salvo in Tokelau’s tense debate over whether decolonization should always mean independence.
Making Tokelau fail?
Kalolo will propose three options for Tokealaans to consider: self-government in free association with New Zealand, full independence, or integration with New Zealand. Two other nations, Niue and the Cook Islands, are already self-governing in free association with New Zealand. Before the referenda, advocates of self-government argued that it would minimize New Zealand’s paternalism and allow Tokelau to receive aid from more countries. The Tokelau government relies on the sale of fishing licenses for its large exclusive economic zone and approximately $ 16 million in aid from New Zealand annually. New Zealand has previously emphasized that if Tokelau moved toward self-government, residents would still have access to New Zealand support and passports.
In July, Tokelaans saw the benefits in an unpredictable world of a close affiliation with New Zealand, when HMNZS Wellington dropped anchor near Nukunono Atoll and two sailors in full protective gear used a small inflatable boat to carry 12 boxes of Covid-19 vaccines. . Nukunono elders watched the delivery with delight, singing songs under a banner that read “Welcome.”
Kalolo acknowledged ongoing concerns among some Tokelaus that self-government would jeopardize that relationship, and said he will also pressure atoll residents to consider options such as full integration with New Zealand, a significant change from the referendums, which only proposed self-government or permanence. a dependent territory.
Ioane Teao, president of the Wellington Tokelau Association in New Zealand and a longtime critic of the atoll political leaders, welcomed the willingness to consider options other than self-government. “It is a novelty for me that they are including integration, because that option was not proposed to the people the last time … I am glad to know that now they are putting it on the table.”
Integration is supported by many in the Tokelau diaspora, which is at least five times the size of Tokelau’s population. Teao, for example, worries that self-government could jeopardize the diaspora’s relationship with Tokelau or negatively empower a small political “elite” in the atolls. By opting for self-government or independence, Teao said: “My concern is that we may be preparing Tokelau to fail.”
The irony of self-government efforts
As this debate arises, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has taken a hands-off approach. Ross Ardern, the current Tokelau administrator and father of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, emphasized his commitment to partnering with Tokelau “to achieve a self-determination outcome that fits the local Tokelau context… where a self-determination option involves an ongoing relationship between Tokelau and New Zealand, the nature of that relationship will be acceptable to both and New Zealand would expect Tokelau to lead that. “
It’s a different approach than the one previously taken by MFAT. Before the referenda, Neil Walter, then administrator, advocated so strongly for self-government that some Tokelau dubbed him “afā” (cyclone). Judith Huntsman, a University of Auckland scholar who specializes in Tokelau politics and history, said the focus on self-government that characterized previous discussions of Tokelau’s future was the result of the UN and MFAT “ suppress[ing]”Options like integration. Huntsman previously suggested that New Zealand’s direct support for self-government was due in large part to MFAT wanting to remove New Zealand from the UN’s formal list of colonizing powers.
This is the irony of previous self-government efforts: they often seemed more driven by outsiders than by the Tokelau themselves. In 2004, a press release attributed to Ulu-o-Tokelau said about self-government: “We have told this to the UN and New Zealand… Why do we want to do this? Is it to satisfy you or to satisfy us? So few Tokelauns openly advocated self-government that Walter confessed at the time that, “frankly, I would rejoice in a flag of independence.”
Kalolo hopes to change that sentiment by prompting the Tokelau people to regain control and consider all options for their future. In a book co-written with Huntsman, he emphasized that “the saying often spoken during the  Referendum [was]: Ko au e hē malamalama – ‘I don’t understand’ ”. In an interview, he emphasized: “I just want people to understand the three options … Whether people are willing to regain self-determination or not, that is their choice.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism