Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Role of the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations Organization in the Struggle against Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: 1961-1974

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Role of the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations Organization in the Struggle against Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: 1961-1974

Article excerpt


In the fifteenth century, Portugal began a process of extending the territories under its control, a process through which it achieved dominance over territories geographically spread out, and with which it maintained distinct relationships. Later on, in the nineteenth century, after Brazilian independence in 1822, the Portuguese colonization turned over to African continent to establish a more effective dominion. The pursuit of geographic delimitation and military control over the population shaped what is known as Portuguese Third Empire.

The existence of the Portuguese Third Empire was partially coincident with the Estado Novo (New State) regime established from 1926 onwards, when, in the aftermath of a coup d'etat, the Portuguese First Republic was overthrown. The Estado Novo, stressing a colonial ideology in which the idea of Portuguese historical mission to colonize and civilize had a prominent place, carried out a tenacious resistance to decolonization. Such resistance was expressed in the use of military repression from 1961 onward against the aspirations of the national liberation movements, which, since the end of the fifties, started to emerge in the Portuguese African colonies. It was only after the overthrow of the Estado Novo on 25 April 1974 that a political solution was implemented that answered to the demands of national liberation movements for the independence of Portuguese colonies, which took place during 1975.

One of the fields that has recently had a major increase in Portuguese historiography is Decolonization Studies. Some works of reflection devoted to the subject have stressed Portuguese resistance to decolonization, demands of national liberation movements and internal and external pressure against the Estado Novo regime. Notwithstanding their unquestionable scientific value, these works disregard the efforts developed by the national liberation movements of Portuguese colonies in supranational institutions such as the United Nations Organization (UN). The limited reflection concerning this issue has been almost restricted to analysis of the main bodies: the Security Council and the General Assembly and their condemnations of Portuguese refusal to recognize the right to self-determination and independence. Neither has the available bibliography approached the circumstances in which the UN became the scenario of a diplomatic campaign developed by the national liberation movements.

Since the subject is an area practically unknown, in this paper, I intend to approach the diplomatic activity of these movements at the UN, particularly, in the Decolonization Committee. Established in 1961, the Decolonization Committee quickly became the main body on issues related to non-self-governing territories. Being a master of non-self-governing territories, Portugal was an inevitable target. By the time it was accepted as UN member in 1955, the General Secretary questioned whether the Portuguese government had territories that could be qualified as "non-self-governing". The Portuguese response was negative, since, according to its revised Constitution of 1951, the non-self-governing territories were overseas provinces.

Given the controversy surrounding the terminology used by both sides, the General Assembly established, in late 1959, a Special Committee charged with settling a definition of the concept of non-self-governing territories. Approved by Resolution 1541 (XV), adopted on 15 December 1960, the Special Committee established that the non-self-governing territories definition should take into account geographic separation in regard to the colonial powers, ethnic and cultural differences between the territories and the rulers and the administrative, juridical and historical subordination (UN, Resolution 1541, p. 29).

One of the outcomes of this definition was Resolution 1542 (XV), adopted also on 15 December 1960, in which all Portuguese colonies were qualified as non-self-governing territories. …

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