Oct 01, 2020

Peaceful, Democratic and Multilateral: Referendum in New Caledonia Renews Hope for Self-Determination in the XXI

This Sunday [4 October 2020], voters in New Caledonia will go to the polls for a second referendum to decide their political status.  First colonised by France in 1853, the islands remain a French colonial dependency in the XXI century. The overwhelming majority of the Kanak, the indigenous Melanesian people that make up 40% of the population of 271,000 people, support independence from France and back the coalition of independence parties – the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS). 

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, UNPO is pleased that the people of New Caledonia are able to freely and peacefully hold a vote to decide their own political status. The agreement between Paris and Noumea that paved the way for the referendum should serve as an example to the international community as it proves that the right to self-determination is not a threat, but a tool for peace and to build effective, accountable and inclusive societies and institutions at all levels.

New Caledonia, which is 18,000 kilometres from France, is home to a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel – a vital electronics component. Home to 271,000 people, the islands are  one of a handful of French island outposts – a legacy of the country’s 19th-century empire – which retain strategic importance.

After violent clashes in the mid-1980s, political leaders in New Caledonia signed a series of agreements to end the conflict. In May 1998, the French government, the FLNKS and anti-independence leaders signed the Noumea Accord, which envisaged a phased withdrawal by France from its territory with a referendum on self rule by 2018 at the latest.

The first referendum took place in November 2018 and, while 56.6% of voters agreed to remain within the French Republic, the result of 43.3% for independence gave impetus to the FLNKS and paved the way for this Sunday’s second referendum.

Amidst campaigns defending the "Yes" and "No", the coronavirus pandemic has made evident how decisions made locally can effectively save lives. With just 28 cases of Covid-19 so far, the government of New Caledonia has set up strict quarantine measures for international travelers. Under pressure from Kanak leaders, the government still maintains strong border controls, even though the closures and global recession have disrupted tourism, transport and the export of nickel, New Caledonia’s key resource.

While its fate depends solely on the will of the people of New Caledonia, the referendum is already a success for its democratic, peaceful and multilateral nature. The UNPO welcomes this historical moment and takes the opportunity to remind the international community of the importance of self-determination as a fundamental human right. Often regarded as a threat, the right to self-determination is in fact at the heart of true implementation of  all other human rights, as well as the creation of an effective international world order capable of responding to issues of global concern, such as rising sea levels and pandemics. 


Photo: Supporters for a ‘Yes’ vote in Sunday’s independence referendum gather in Kone ahead of the poll/ Theo Rouby/AFP/Getty Images