updated 2/16/2006 11:55:35 AM ET 2006-02-16T16:55:35

Three coral atolls in the South Pacific will remain a colony of New Zealand because not enough islanders endorsed a plan for self-government in voting that ended Thursday.

Sixty percent of voters in Tokelau approved the proposal, short of the necessary 66 percent majority. Voters had been expected to approve the plan.

Instead, the three atolls of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo — with 1,500 people halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii — for now remain one of 16 territories on the United Nations’ “decolonization list” of countries encouraged to move to self-determination. Other territories on the list include Gibraltar, Western Sahara and Guam.

Very cautious to change
Tokelau, which was seized by Britain in 1889 and handed to New Zealand in 1926, would have become one of the world’s smallest self-governing territories if the vote had succeeded.

“The people of Tokelau have traditionally taken a very cautious approach to change,” Tokelau administrator Neil Walter said in a statement.

U.N. and New Zealand officials have said the islands, which have no airport and sit 28 hours by boat from Samoa, could never be a self-supporting independent state.

Tokelau, which is linked to the outside world only by telephone and cargo ship, had been expected to sign a support treaty with New Zealand after approving self-determination.

Turnout was nearly 100 percent. Only about a dozen of the territory’s roughly 600 registered voters failed to cast a ballot, Walter said.

Four U.N. observers had observed the five-day voting period in the U.N.-mandated referendum.

Future vote possible
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said although the territory’s political leadership “believed it was time to move to a new, more equal relationship with New Zealand, the people ... have not wanted to change the current relationship.”

New Zealand will continue to provide the support and assistance the territory “needs to continue running itself,” she said.

Citizens of the three tiny atolls have New Zealand nationality. Some 7,000 Tokelauans who live in New Zealand did not participate in the voting.

Walter said self-government would have given Tokelau full control of its affairs, with New Zealand in a strong support role. It is possible the Tokelauans might vote again, he said.

“The decision rules out a formal change of status in the immediate future but it does not rule it out for all time,” he said.

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