Starting with Ethiopia in 1941, no less than 129 countries have achieved independence in the last 70-odd years. This trend has been spearheaded by former colonies pressing for, and achieving, full sovereignty, as well as by the breakup of morally bankrupt empires (Soviet Union, Yugoslavia) in the face of agitations for self-determination. Models of 21st-century world governance are based on, and organized around, the sovereign state. There are now 193 such members in the United Nations. Most international and regional organizations, as well as diplomatic efforts, imply the exclusive operation of sovereign, independent states and their representatives. But: this impetus towards sovereignty has ground largely to a halt. Only four states have secured independence since 1993; East Timor, Montenegro, Kosovo, and South Sudan; of these, one (Kosovo) remains partially recognized and another (South Sudan) is caught in a deadly civil war.

Meanwhile, various states are finding that a devolution of powers helps to put into practice the principle of ‘subsidiarity’; enrich the democratic fabric and the general processes of governance; and provide a valid response to demands and claims by sub-national identities for policy discretions which may otherwise prove difficult within a centralized polity. Hence the emergence of the subnational jurisdiction: a non-sovereign territory with a slate of executive powers.

Islands are common locations for the above two political dynamics. That many jurisdictions are islands should not be surprising: the geographical and logistic parameters of being small and islanded conspire to encourage such territories to develop as distinct administrative units. In many cases, special jurisdictional features enjoyed by such islands have arisen in the context of colonialism. Other features have emerged in the context of federal politics (such as asymmetric federalism); to meet grassroots demands for devolution and greater local autonomy; or to construct subnational enclaves that enjoy specific legal regimes (such as financial centres or export processing zones).

Thus we have, on one hand, a cluster of small island states most of whom fall within the 38-strong ‘small island developing states’ (SIDS) grouping that is recognized by the UN. Joining them are the four ‘developed’ European small island states of Cyprus, Iceland, Ireland, and Malta.

On the other hand, there are the 100-plus subnational island jurisdictons (SNIJs). Most of these are not interested in secession, and would have confirmed this in various independence referenda. In some cases they appear to have benefited from measures of self-government – often not shared by other component units of the polity – while remaining comfortably lodged within the purview of a larger, richer, metropolitan state. For these, the benefits of ‘autonomy without sovereignty’ include free trade with, and tourist arrivals and export preference from, the parent country; social welfare assistance; easier access to external capital; tapping of external labour markets via migration; aid-financed infrastructure and communications; higher-quality health and educational systems; natural disaster relief; provision of costly external defence; and a climate of political stability and confidence which attracts investment.

Despite a growing body of research that purports to assess the relative developmental benefits to being a SNIJ, much less is known about the quality of life or the nature and level of cultural development of islanders on these islands. Indeed, does this ambiguous political status make any difference to the daily lives of the people living on these islands?

Meanwhile, the difference between SIDS and SNIJs is growing increasingly fuzzy. Sovereign states no longer have a monopoly in international relations and diplomacy, but share this with various SNJs. Some SNJs are independent in all but name. And some sovereign states have either ‘failed’ or have taken on functions that suggest that they are the dependent subjects of a suzerain state: witness SIDS Nauru, Solomons, and Papua New Guinea providing ‘detention services’ to Australia. 206 ‘countries’ have international Olympic committees and could take part in the 2016 Rio Olympics: these include the SNIJs of American Samoa, Cayman Islands, and Cook Islands. The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) includes Montserrat (a SNIJ) as a full member. The province of Quebec (a SNJ) is a full participating member of the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO. And the status of Taiwan is subject to debate.

Therefore, the time may be ripe to organize an event that:

  • recognizes the category of the subnational island jurisdiction and its existence around the world;
  • recognizes the benefits, yet also the challenges, of being a SIDS or a SNIJ in the 21st century;
  • critically examines the similarities and differences between SIDS and SNIJs, including their relative capacity for implementing sustainable practices in socio-political, cultural-artistic, economic, and environmental domains; and
  • compares and contrasts the island-metropole/mainland relationship in both SIDS and SNIJs.

Thus, organizers are happy to announce the 1st international conference on Small Island States and Subnational Island Jurisdictions: Island States/Island Territories: Sharing Stories of Island Life, Governance, and Global Engagement, March 26-29, 2019, in Oranjestad, Aruba.


Supported by the UNESCO Co-Chairs in Island Studies and Sustainability at
University of Prince Edward Island/University of Malta,
The University of Aruba, and
the Centre of Excellence for the Sustainability of Small Island Developing States,
Oranjestad, Aruba