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Indigenous Rights

Quest for Self-Determination Continues in New Caledonia

SYDNEY, Jun 9 2014 (IPS) - Since the French overseas territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific was reinstated on the United Nations Decolonisation List in 1986, the indigenous Kanak people have struggled not only against socio-economic disadvantages, but also for the right to determine their political future after more than a century of colonialism.

Housing, education, unemployment and indigenous inequality were dominant campaign issues for candidates in favour of self-determination during elections held last month.

Polling results showed a political gain for the increasingly united pro-independence movement. Still, the indigenous Kanak community faces serious challenges ahead, with a loyalist majority congress set to oversee a referendum on full self-governance within the next five years.

“The only chance for independence to succeed [...] is for moderate pro-independence leaders to consciously court other communities by effectively proposing an inclusive political project." -- Daryl Morini, head of the Centre for a Common Destiny
Victor Tutugoro, an indigenous leader and spokesperson for the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), which joined four other political parties to campaign in the pro-French south of the country and saw their representation increase from four to seven seats, is positive about the outcome.

“We rose against an anti-independence right, which is divided,” Tutugoro told IPS. “New generations, less marked by the colonial era, are more open to Caledonian sovereignty.”

Polling on May 11 in territorial and provincial elections, which are held every five years, saw candidates in favour of self-determination secure 25 of a total of 54 seats in the territorial congress, two more than in the previous 2009 election.

The remaining 29 seats were taken by the French loyalist camp, dominated by the Caledonia Together Party led by Philippe Gomès, who migrated from Algeria as a youth. Concerns for those who do not want to sever ties with Europe include the potential impact on the economy, given that France’s funding of infrastructure and public services amounts to 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Daryl Morini, head of the West Caledonian think tank known as the Centre for a Common Destiny, told IPS, “The result was no surprise to anyone and only reaffirmed the demographic and political paradox which has characterised New Caledonian politics for a long time.”

Forty percent of the roughly 258,000 people who live here are indigenous and 29 percent are European, while other communities account for the remaining 31 percent of the population.

While “allegiance for or against independence cuts across ethnic lines … the overwhelming majority of New Caledonians, made up of all other [non-Kanak] ethnic groups, are opposed to independence,” Morini told IPS.

For years the Kanak people have struggled for better education and employment outcomes. A mere 10 percent of students in higher education are indigenous, while 60 percent are European.

The situation is exacerbated by rural-urban inequality. Infrastructure, services and economic opportunities are concentrated in the Southern province, which includes the capital, Noumea, while the rural Northern and Islands provinces, where the Kanak population is dominant, are less developed.

Indigenous activism, triggered by land dispossession and socioeconomic hardship, culminated in violent unrest in the late 1980s. In 1988, the Matignon Accord formalised an agreement to address issues of indigenous disparity. However, the first referendum on independence was widely boycotted by Kanaks, resulting in a 90 percent vote to retain French governance.

Moves toward greater autonomy in the Pacific Islands territory began with the 1998 Noumea Accord, which promoted the idea of shared sovereignty. It officially endorsed Kanak identity and the formation of a Customary Senate, an assembly of traditional leaders to be consulted on issues impacting indigenous people. The treaty also outlined plans for partial devolution of powers, such as taxation, health and foreign trade, and a provision for a further referendum on independence by 2018.

Despite gains in this year’s election, concerns about irregularities on the electoral roll remain. Last year a major dispute emerged over territorial elections, since only people living in New Caledonia prior to 1988, the year of the Matignon Peace Accord, were allowed to cast their ballot.

FLNKS claimed that 6,700 people who had moved to the territory after this date were incorrectly on the list, while 2,000 legitimate Kanaks were excluded.

Earlier this year the French government sent a legal delegation to investigate, as did the United Nations in March, but the issues were not resolved.

“Many Kanak and other citizens were unable to vote because they were removed from the special list, even parents were removed while their children were able to vote,” Tutugoro said. “This situation significantly impacted abstention and we are currently examining the possibility of an action for annulment of the provincial election in the Southern province given the … many irregularities.”

Regional support for independence

New Caledonia is a representative democracy and possesses 25 percent of the world’s nickel reserves. However, 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment stands at 14 percent. Ninety-five percent of those who are unemployed are Kanak.

During the past 15 years, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), an inter-governmental organisation of the southwest Pacific Island states of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, represented by FLNKS, has demonstrated solidarity with Kanak aspirations. Last year, FLNKS, under Tutugoro’s leadership, was elected Chair of the MSG until 2015.

Tutugoro claims, “Registration of New Caledonia on the U.N. list of territories to be decolonised was due to their [MSG’s] support,” adding, “since 2010 several expert missions monitoring the implementation of the Noumea Accord were either initiated by the MSG, or led by the MSG on behalf of the U.N.”

Two major concerns for the pro-independence movement, ahead of the next referendum, are the impact of inward migration, which has contributed to an increasing Kanak minority, and the territory’s economic dependence on France.

But Tutugoro believes policies supporting greater equality under the Matignon and Noumea Accords “will help to reverse election results in the coming years.”

Morini acknowledged that “there was once a clear French policy of encouraging immigration to New Caledonia to populate the country,” but said the introduction of restricted voting rights had diminished the impact on election outcomes.

“The only chance for independence to succeed, in my view, is for moderate pro-independence leaders to consciously court other communities by effectively proposing an inclusive political project,” he suggested.

An inclusive vision, which for many in the Kanak community means recognising indigenous rights to shape and influence New Caledonia’s future, will be key to any new political arrangement.


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