Tokelau, a group of coral islets in the middle of the South Pacific that calls itself the last paradise on earth, has rejected independence in a referendum for the second time in 15 months and will remain a colony of New Zealand.
A ballot that could have created the world's newest and smallest nation fell just 16 votes short of the required two-thirds majority when the result was declared Thursday.
A total of 446 Tokelauans living on three small atolls voted in favour of self-government in free association with New Zealand with 246 against in the election held from Saturday through Thursday.
The losing margin in a similar ballot in February 2006 was 36.
The votes meant that Tokelau, which has been ruled initially by Britain and then New Zealand since 1877, remains one of 16 non-self-governing territories still listed by the United Nations Committee on Decolonization.
Leaders of the nearly 1,500 people who live on Tokelau favoured a vote for self-government in association with New Zealand, which promised to continue providing the aid that keeps one of the world's most remote communities afloat.
But nearly 8,000 exiles who live in New Zealand, where all Tokelauans have citizenship, are believed to have persuaded enough of their relatives against independence, even though they were not allowed a vote. The emigrants argued that Tokelau is too small to be a viable nation.
Set halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, Tokelau's three main atolls cover 12 square kilometres of land spread over 160 square kilometres of ocean.
It has no capital, no airport, no harbours and its nearly 1,500 residents are a 28-hour boat ride away from their nearest neighbours in Samoa, where the civil servants who administer Tokelau's internal affairs at the direction of village elders live and work.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark pledged her country's "ongoing friendship and support" for Tokelau, noting that it was already in practice exercising most of the responsibilities of a self-governing country.
She left open the prospect of another vote at some time in the future. dpa db ls