2001 Volume 2001 Issue 126 Pages 81-101,L12
This paper reveals the ‘hidden’ United Nations' role in bringing about the ultimate demise of the Britain's formal Empire. The UN from the late 1950s onwards, with a significant increase in African membership, became a stronghold of international critics of colonialism. Contrary to the conventional image that the UN did not play much role in Britain's decolonization, newly-released archival evidence clearly shows that the dramatic downfall of international legitimacy of colonialism and the ever imminent possibility of UN intervention into UK's most sensitive colonial possessions such as Kenya and Central African Federation were constantly a real source of concern for Britain's top policy makers during the early 1960s. Though UK's sensitivity was not admitted openly, the UN anti-colonialism should be considered as one of the most decisive factors that precipitated Britain's sweeping decolonisation after 1960.
The article starts with the review of postwar UK-UN relations with particular reference to the British attitude towards the rising anti-colonialism at the UN. Britain's basic policy to keep the UN hands off her colonies did not have to change until the end of the 1950s largely because Article 2 (7) of the UN charter, the domestic jurisdiction clause, effectively barred interference into the affairs of her dependent territories. The static picture changed dramatically in 1960, when the South African racial problem shook the traditional, strict interpretation of the domestic jurisdiction clause and the famous UN Resolution 1514 on colonialism was adopted by an overwhelming majority. The British then recognized the need to seriously cope with the unwelcome development at the UN and tried to secure as much cooperation as possible from her major allies such as the US. However, the prospect of UN intervention into UK's most sensitive colonies was so imminent that the only viable course left to Britain was to inevitably ‘jettison’ her remaining colonies, small or large, as quickly as possible. The episode illustrates how strong Britain's desire was to remain in the mainstream of international politics. The possibility of a break-up of the Commonwealth was a major reason why the British did not want to antagonize the anti-colonial camp at the UN. Fortunately for the British, the pressure for an ever faster decolonization receded when most of the sizable British colonies had attained independence by 1963 (Kenya). Nevertheless, the British continued to be fearful lest the issues such as Aden should be given undue attention in the UN and were no longer able to pursue a policy of an ‘orderly decolonisation’, which had characterised Britain's imperial policy up to the previous decade.