2022 Session,
5th Meeting (AM & PM)

Several Speakers Upset by France’s Refusal to Postpone Vote amid Pandemic, as Special Decolonization Committee Hears Contesting Reports on Recent New Caledonia Referendum

Petitioner from United States Virgin Islands Also Speaks

With New Caledonia in a critical phase of its decolonization process, stakeholders offered the Special Committee on Decolonization contesting reports on a recent referendum conducted in the Territory.

The 29-member Special Committee — formally known as the Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples — was established in 1961 by the General Assembly with a mandate to annually review the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories to which the Declaration is applicable.

Charles Wea, Counsellor of President of the Government of New Caledonia, calling on the Special Committee to follow the situation in his Territory closely, said the third referendum, held on 12 December 2021, did not garner the participation of the entire population.  Pointing to the 56 per cent participation in that referendum as opposed to the nearly 80 per cent rates of participation in the first and second referendums, he stressed that the independence parties do not recognize the political legitimacy of this referendum.

Highlighting the institutionalized discrimination faced by the Kanak people, who are the colonized people of the Territory as well as supporters of independence, he expressed regret that their request to defer the referendum to November 2022 was declined.  This has led the Territory into a political and institutional impasse, which risks compromising the decolonization process, he said.  “Institutional reshuffling is not sufficient,” he said, reaffirming commitment to the Nouméa Accord which sets out a progressive transfer of power from France to New Caledonia.

Frédérique Muliavato, a petitioner from the Congress of New Caledonia, said the date of the third referendum will be remembered as “a day of sadness and injustice”.  Her movement had asked the administering Power to postpone the referendum as it was impossible for families, clans and chiefs to step away from the mourning period for those lost in the pandemic.  “We feel dishonored by the decision” to conduct the referendum on that day, she said, adding that France has undermined the future of the people it has colonized.

James Baghwan of the Pacific Conference of Churches also expressed concern about France’s “inflexible and inconsiderate” approach, noting that the country ignored the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which impeded many Kanaks from taking part in the referendum.  Echoing the call of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, he said the United Nations must declare that third referendum to be null and void.

However, another petitioner, Marie-Laure Ukeiwe of South Province of New Caledonia, offered a contrasting perspective, stressing:  “We want to be part of France.”  Those who voted in the third referendum are firmly committed to the Territory’s future, she underscored.  “Like many New Caledonians, I was born in two worlds,” she said, adding that she feels connected to her Kanak heritage as well as French values.  Hundreds of young Kanak people, including her, hold posts of responsibility, she noted, emphasizing that remaining “within the heart of the French Republic” will allow the Territory to build a peaceful future.

The representative of France, the administering Power, said the conditions under which the third referendum was held “are known to all”.  Pointing to a 3 June court ruling in favour of the validity of the referendum, he added that New Caledonia has come to an important stage in the process begun in 1988.  For the first time, its people have spoken out against full sovereignty, he said, noting that the dialogue process must continue with the aim of setting up new arrangements and new territorial institutions within the French Republic.  “[France] is determined to continue peaceful and fruitful discussions with all parties in New Caledonia,” he said.

The representative of Papua New Guinea, speaking also for Fiji, as main sponsors of the draft resolution relating to the Question of New Caledonia, thanked the participants from that Territory for their insightful updates and acknowledged the constructive partnership with France.  This year’s draft reaffirms the continuing relevance of reducing the socioeconomic gaps between different ethnic groups in the Territory, particularly that of the Kanaks, he said.  Noting the aftermath of the third self-determination referendum and the imminent ending of the Noumea Accord, he said:  “We sense an air of uncertainty”. The resolution calls on all relevant parties to ensure that the next steps for the self-determination process are transparent and inclusive, he said, also highlighting France’s offer for a new United Nations visiting mission to New Caledonia.

Afterwards, the Committee took up the question of the United States Virgin Islands, hearing from petitioner Judith Bourne who also pointed to a contested referendum in her Territory in November 2020, which attempts to revive the 1954 Revised Organic Act as the Islands’ governing document.  While that Act was said to be approved by voters, she emphasized that in truth more people abstained in the vote than voted “yes”.  Spotlighting “ongoing neglect” by the United States — which led to severe impacts following two major tropical storms and the pandemic — she drew attention to bureaucratic delays in providing funds.  Now, an influx of money from that country to the Virgin Islands is being viewed by some as largess, rather than simply the funds that were merited in the first place, she said, also noting an apparent communications issue, which resulted in the United States failing to attend the Decolonization Seminar held in Saint Lucia in May.

The Special Committee also considered the questions of Guam, Monserrat, Pitcairn, Saint Helena, and Turks and Caicos Islands, agreeing to take action on related draft resolutions as well as the text on New Caledonia on 24 June.

The Special Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Monday, 20 June, to take up the question of Puerto Rico.

For information media. Not an official record.