Ensuring developing countries' sovereignty over their natural resources
The concept that countries, peoples and nations should have control over their natural resources dates back to prior to the United Nations’ founding. Within the context of the General Assembly, beginning as early as the 1950’s, countries in the developing world initiated the affirmation of permanent sovereignty held by countries over natural resources within their territory, within General Assembly resolutions. Beginning in the 1970s the concept was broadened to include therightsof peoples in non-self-governing territories and sub-national groups by the General Assembly Second Committee. Despite some progress in the legal and institutional framework, there are numerous examples of ongoing impediments to the full realization of sovereignty by developing countries and peoples worldwide. Some current ongoing examples include Nigeria, the Bougainville region of Papua New Guinea, Syria, Iraq, Angola and many more. These examples provide evidence of the failures of the international community thus far to guarantee sovereignty over natural resources, as well as examples of the possible consequences of that failure. Socioeconomic collapse, political violence, regional instability, human rights and international humanitarian law violations, and the perpetuation or creation of armed conflict are among the numerous possible negative consequences of a sustained failure to recognize the sovereignty of peoples and countries over their natural resources. It is imperative that the General Assembly act in order to achieve greater acceptance and exercise of the rights of peoples over their natural resources worldwide.
As for the history and international framework of the topic, the Latin American bloc has been most responsible for the inclusion of “Permanent Sovereignty Over Natural Resources” as a topic for consideration by organs of the United Nations, with Chile often the most vocal on this point early in the history of the United Nations. Due in part to their perceived lesser-power status in their international relations, particularly with the United States regarding American businesses with resource extraction operations in their territories, Latin American countries specifically strongly defended the concepts of national sovereignty and the primacy of states over their territory. In 1958, the General Assembly created the Commission on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, which completed its work in 1961 with the proposal of a Draft Declaration on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources. This Draft Declaration was eventually passed as General Assembly Resolution 1803 in December 1962. The resolution applied these rights to both “peoples and nations,” which opened the possibility of the rights being granted to non-state entities and peoples seeking self-determination prior to official statehood, and linked the values of the UN Charter with the ability to exercise this sovereignty.
With all of such past attempts, there are still multiple examples of ongoing impediments to the full realization of sovereignty around the world. Taking Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (PNG) as an example, we see the site of a conflict between 1988 and 1998 that serves as an example of the violation of sovereignty over natural resources. While still under Australian administration, PNG granted a mining exploration license to the Rio Tinto Zinc Corporation (RTZ) in 1963; in 1972 operations expanded to build the Panguna mine, the world’s largest open pit copper mine, under the management of Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), with the PNG government as a minority shareholder, and RTZ as its parent company. The residents of Bougainville came into conflict with the company almost immediately. Due to the fact that under the PNG Independence Constitution, mineral rights belonged to the State, landowners were not entitled to any royalties or profits. The situation deteriorated further once communities found their traditional way of life endangered by environmentaldamage to marine life and agriculture, compounded by a loss of “tranquility because of the noise from the continuous blasting operations.” These environmental and social issues were further exacerbated by the inequity in distribution of profits from the copper mine. In its 17 years of operation, roughly 2% of the total profits were distributed to landowners, with the vast majority going to the Government of PNG, which was not seen as a rightful recipient of profits from the mine. A final cause for the eventual eruption of conflict was tensions between native Bougainvilleans and workers brought in from the mainland of PNG who were seen as rivals for jobs, often were paid higher wages, formed “squatter settlements” on traditionally-owned land, and encouraged criminal activity and poor behavior. Such situations completely impede the right to sovereignty over the nation’s natural resources and the General Assembly should work to ensure that all of such situations are completely eradicated.
The establishment of the right to permanent sovereignty over natural resources, a right held by peoples and nations as well as by countries, dates back to the early years of the United Nations. As the concept developed, numerous examples of violations of this sovereignty have been brought to the attention of the international community. However, despite numerous actions taken in the form of General Assembly resolutions for example, neither the Security Council attempts nor Secretariat action, nor actions taken outside the United Nations system, have been enough to uphold sovereignty over natural resources worldwide. Situations like those in Nigeria due to oil and in the Bougainville region due to mineral extraction continue to exist and challenge the international community as well as the United Nations system for solutions. In situations involving sub-national areas and entities seeking autonomy, such as Bougainville and Nigeria, the question of sovereign rights for peoples and nations can cause internal conflict; in situations involving external sovereign entities, such as multiple middle-eastern countries for example, natural resource sovereignty can be a factor in the creation or perpetuation of inter-state conflict. The General Assembly, in its approach to this situation, must bear in mind its legal, ethical, and practical impacts and importance of this topic. The General Assembly must also have a dual focus, including specific situations that are unique because of their context as well as broader, more universal problems that can be addressed more generally. We must consider the role of the concept of permanent sovereignty over natural resources in achieving sustainable development goals.
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