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Deadline looms for New Caledonia

Activists seeking New Caledonian independence from France claim the referendum vote on Sunday fails to meet demands from the United Nations.

A letter sent to French president Emmanuel Macron on Monday is calling for a halt to proceedings until the end of 2022 to also fall in line with the country’s own constitution.

The movement is calling on the government in Paris to respect the “inalienable” right of the Kanak people, the original inhabitants of the archipelago, after bringing forward an independence deadline.

Around 43 per cent of citizens in 2018 backed New Caledonia towards full sovereignty and to cut ties with French colonisation after 168 years, which increased to 47 per cent of votes two years later.

But the French government has since accelerated the final and deciding poll to just 14 months on during a raft of social changes from the pandemic that has heavily affected the Indigenous Kanak.

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“As it stands, the conditions under which this referendum will be organised disregard the right to self-determination of the Kanak people guaranteed by the United Nations declaration of 2007 and protected by the French constitution, which devotes a title to New-Caledonia and the Nouméa accords,” the letter said.

The final referendum on self-determination could ensure the process of decolonisation from the 1998 accord that transfers the powers from France to its territory.

Pro-independence parties including the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front claim a second outbreak of Covid-19 in September hit the independence supporters hard.

The significant increase in virus cases imposed a long confinement that led to isolation, and straining health and social structures, “preventing any democratic life” from the prolonged curfew and a state of health emergency, hurting families and clans through a number of bereavements.

Deadline looms for New Caledonia
New Caledonia residents wave the Kanak flag for independence from France. Picture: Twitter

“This health situation also leads to the impossibility of meeting and debating in all serenity about the future of this territory, after this long period of isolation, which is just coming to an end, and above all because of the will to observe with care and attention (of) the Kanak mourning rituals, bringing together all the members of the clans and allies,” the letter said.

“These are vital rituals for the indigenous Oceanian peoples, which is impossible to be expedited under the pretext of maintaining a referendum calendar that is akin to a diktat (relating to an order that is imposed by someone in power without popular consent). This would end the Nouméa accord in a way that betrays its essence: being committed to considering and respecting Kanak people.”

Figures have shown that of the 279 deaths from the outbreak, the majority are Kanaks or Polynesian Wallisans and Futunian people despite accounting for little more than 40 per cent of the residents on New Caledonia.

That was 81 per cent up on deaths compared to numbers for any past September.

France had promised New Caledonia the third referendum would be held outside of French national elections “between the middle of September 2021 and the end of August 2022”.

The Nouméa accords stated that the referendum could be held up until October 4, 2022, but the government chose to set the date 10 months earlier.

“It is as one voice that we urge the president of the French Republic to postpone the referendum on self-determination (of) Kanaky in New Caledonia,” the letter said.

“We have no doubt that he will hear us and will understand that the voice of France will carry all the further if it respects the commitments it has made to its people, enshrined in its constitution, and will comply with the inalienable right of peoples to self-determination without which no viable and lasting decolonization process can succeed.”

The movement says it has backing from indigenous leaders, organisations defending the rights of indigenous peoples, associations developing transitional justice, environmental justice collectives and associations promoting human, and “all those who want to assume their part in this historic event” in favour of an effective decolonisation.

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