New Caledonia violence ‘unfortunate’ but ‘not surprising’, says Pacific Forum chief

The result of Tuesday's controversial French National Assembly vote on constitutional changes
The result of Tuesday's controversial French National Assembly vote on constitutional changes on the electoral rolls and voting rules in New Caledonia -- 351-153 for the change. Image: @chikirouparis

RNZ Pacific

Outgoing Secretary-General Henry Puna of the Pacific Islands Forum is “not surprised” with the violent unrest in New Caledonia which has shut down the French Pacific territory.

New Caledonia has come to a virtual stop after three days of civil unrest, resulting in burning, shooting and looting, as leaders call for calm.

French police reinforcements have arrived in Nouméa, with reports of dozens of arrests being made.

New Caledonia’s territorial President, pro-independence leader Louis Mapou, has condemned violent actions, saying “anger cannot justify harming or destroying public property, production tools, all of which this country has taken decades to build”.

Secretary-General Puna told journalists in his final news conference as the region’s top diplomat from Rarotonga that “to see the collapse [and], protesting is very unfortunate” — but it was predictable.

He said the issue “has been boiling” since the 2021 independence referendum in the French territory, the third and final vote under the Nouméa Accord, which was boycotted by the pro-indigenous Kanak population.

He said he was there in December 2021 to monitor the independence referendum when it was taken and “it was unfortunate that it was allowed to go ahead during that time”.

‘In middle of covid pandemic’
“We were in the middle of the covid pandemic and the Kanak custom is that when somebody passes, they mourn for one year. So they weren’t allowed that freedom.

“As a result, they didn’t want to take part in the referendum because they couldn’t go against their tradition and go campaigning or do other work. That’s disrespectful for the custom.”

Puna said the Nouméa Accord — all the processes, and the steps leading to that referendum, had been set and agreed to by all parties and if that had been followed right through, the referendum would not have been held then but in September 2022.

“To see the collapse and protesting is very unfortunate because it does raise some issues that need to be resolved. But I think it can be resolved in the wisdom of our leaders at this time.

“That’s something that we really need to talk about openly and honestly. What the causes of the problem are, and what the solutions could be.

Henry Puna in Rarotonga. 15 May 2024
Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna . . . the New Caledonia unrest is “unfortunate”. Image: PIF Secretariat

‘Recognise greater autonomy’ – Mark Brown
The outgoing chair of the Forum and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said greater autonomy for the indigenous Kanak population was needed.

Brown said Pacific peoples valued sovereignty and the protests were in response to that.

He said many forum members were former colonies.

“If there’s one thing that specific countries value, it is the sovereignty and independence. To be able to have control over the destiny of your own country,” he said.

New Caledonia, French Polynesia were new entrants into the Forum and this was in recognition of their calls they had made for greater autonomy coming from their people.

“My initial view of the unrest that’s occurring in Caledonia, it is a call to recognise greater autonomy and greater independence from the people on those islands,” he said.

“As a member of the Forum now, we will be able to provide support assistance to these member countries as to the best way forward without trying to avoid any escalation of conflict.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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