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UN seeks to sweep away last traces of imperial age

One was Napoleon's last place of exile. Another became home to survivors of the mutiny-stricken HMS Bounty. They are St. Helena and the Pitcairn Islands, flecks of real estate set in vast oceans, each occupying a special place in history.

These and 14 other territories — some would call them colonies — are listed by the U.N. as relics of a vanished age when Europeans ruled large chunks of the globe. The U.N. guided many colonies to independence, and what's left of the former empires are territories, defined by the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization as "non-self-governing," entitled in many cases to elect local officials but all under the ultimate authority of a distant capital.

The committee is one of the few forums in which colonialism's last remaining subjects can make themselves heard. Its latest annual meeting, in June, featured voices as disparate as lawmakers from Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, a headman from a cluster of New Zealand-ruled islets, and a spokesman for a Saharan territory that has been fighting for independence for 35 years.

Some may see the U.N. committee as an anachronism, little noticed by anyone other than those who attend its meetings: two dozen ambassadors of countries with a direct interest in the decolonization process, and representatives of the territories in question.

But Ahmed Boukhari of the Polisario Front, which seeks the independence of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, says its existence is vital.

"Not only do we need the committee, we need to enhance it," he told The Associated Press. "For the people of the territories, it's an essential element in their struggle for self-determination."

A century ago, before the term "Third World" came into use, colonialism was the norm. The British Empire was the world's largest, covering about a quarter of Earth's land area. Next was France.

But almost everywhere, liberation movements were springing up, and after World War II, decolonization surged ahead under the newly founded United Nations. More than 80 colonies comprising about 750 million people became self-governing.

But the last traces are proving hard to erase.

The U.N. General Assembly had declared 1990-2000 to be the "International Decade for the Eradication of Colonization," and indeed, that was the decade that saw the return of British-ruled Hong Kong and Portuguese Macau to China.

With the job still unfinished, 2000-2010 became the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonization, its highlight being East Timor's independence from Indonesia. Now the world is into its third such decade.

It may get to delist New Caledonia, France's "special collectivity" in the southwest Pacific, following an independence referendum for the population of 250,000 expected in 2014. At this year's meeting, it heard from Victor Tutugoro of New Caledonia's Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front about the anthem, currency and motto the islands have chosen.

"If we can get two or three more on that path in the next decade, we can show that the process of decolonization can be achieved," said Saint Lucia's ambassador, Donatus Keith St. Aimee, a committee member and former chairman.

Also at the meeting was Faipule Foua Toloa, titular head of New Zealand's Tokelau islands, whose address included a prayer for guidance in his ancestors' language. The 1,400 Tokelau people fall into the no-thanks category, having voted in a 2006 referendum against breaking with the mother country.

To get off the list, a territory can win independence, be fully integrated into the colonial power as are France's Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, or become a sovereign state "freely associated" with a country, like the Marshall Islands and the U.S.

The U.S., with three territories on the list, and Britain, with 10, don't attend the annual meeting, saying the process is outdated.

The two most contentious possessions are British: Gibraltar, claimed by Spain; and the Falkland Islands, which Argentina invaded in 1982, only to be driven out by a British force that sailed 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) to recover the territory. London maintains that if the 3,000 Falklanders and 30,000 Gibraltarians want to remain part of Britain, their wishes must be respected.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, whose country calls the islands Las Malvinas, has denounced Britain as a "crude colonial power." But Roger Edwards, a Falklands legislator, asked the decolonization committee at this year's review to remove the islands from its list and ignore Argentina's demands.

"We do not feel that we are a downtrodden colony of an old Imperial Britain," he said.

Gibraltarians, perched on their rock at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, rejected Spanish sovereignty in two referendums — one when Spain was a dictatorship, the other after it became a democracy.

Britain also claims Bermuda and the Caribbean islands of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos.

And then there are the lonely islands of St. Helena, pop. 7,600, halfway between Brazil and Africa, where the Emperor Napoleon died six years after his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo, and the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, populated by about four dozen people mostly descended from mutineers on the HMS Bounty and their Tahitian companions.

The U.S. territories still listed are the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean and Guam and American Samoa in the Pacific.

The annual meeting ends with a resolution bundling together most of the territories on its list with a simple acknowledgment that their case has been heard.

That does not satisfy St. Aimee, the ambassador whose island of St. Lucia is a former British possession that used to be on the list. He says too many disparate territories are being lumped together and not getting the attention they deserve.

On the Falklands dispute, the committee goes slightly further, urging Britain and Argentina to negotiate a solution.

And then there's a hardy perennial — Puerto Rico, which has not been on the list since it became a U.S. commonwealth in 1953, and has voted three times to keep that status. There are calls, backed by President Barack Obama, for another vote on the matter by next year.

Annually for the past 12 years Cuba has introduced a resolution asking the U.S. for a process "that would allow Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence." And this year, as happens every year, the resolution was adopted, with Cuba's ambassador, Pedro Nunez-Mosquera, vowing his country would uphold Puerto Rico's rights, "remaining at its side until the final victory."

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The U.N. and decolonization: http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/index.shtml