What is new in New Caledonia?
There was a referendum on Sunday 4 November in New Caledonia, a Pacific island territory that is under French sovereignty. The question was whether it should become an independent state or remain under France, and the decision was in favour of France, with 57 per cent of the vote in a turnout of over 80 per cent.
Why does this matter?
If New Caledonia had voted for independence the map of the world would change because a new country would appear. This does not happen all that often now. Although there were large numbers of new countries gaining independence between 1955 and 2000, there have not been many new countries formed since then: South Sudan (2011) was the last one although Kosovo (2008) and Montenegro (2006) have also been founded this century as independent states. Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in 2014 but could have become independent then.
Why did New Caledonia have a referendum on independence?
There has been a long-running civil conflict in New Caledonia between people who want independence and people who favour a continued link with France. During the 1980s there was a violent insurgency that cost the lives of French officials. France introduced a new constitutional settlement in 1988 and then in 1998 concluded the Nouméa accord with local representatives to provide an agreed position on the future of the island. Part of the agreement was that there should be referendums on independence.
What were the arguments for staying with France?
What were the arguments for independence?
How many colonies are there in the world?
The great powers of the 19th Century, particularly Britain and France, gathered large empires of overseas territories around the world which they governed as colonies. From the 1930s onwards, particularly in the period between 1955 and 1975, most of these became independent. As the United Nations reports, a third of the world’s population was under foreign rule in 1945 but there is now only a tiny fraction – 2 million people in a world of around 7.6 billion people. http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/history.shtml
There are 17 territories across the world that meet the United Nations definition of a non-self-governing territory http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/nonselfgovterritories.shtml
New Caledonia is one of the largest such territories, with a population of 268,787. With a similar population total in French Polynesia, France is responsible for the largest number of people who live in non-sovereign territories. The United States has the next largest ‘colonial’ population because of its island possessions at Guam in the Pacific and the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. The United Kingdom has the largest number of non-self-governing territories, with nine in total, mostly in the Atlantic and Caribbean but including Gibraltar in southern Europe (the smallest by area) and the isolated Pitcairn Island in the Pacific, the smallest by population with only 39 residents.
There are some other territories which do not qualify under the UN definition but still lack elements of sovereignty and independence, such as Puerto Rico, the occupied territories in Palestine, and the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
Why are these places still under colonial rule?
There are a number of reasons that mean that some territories are still colonies. Economic dependence on the bigger country is one such reason, and some are simply too small and isolated to be a government of their own and find the combination of outsourcing defence, foreign policy and law to a big state while having some local autonomy is a comfortable situation. Some, particularly colonies like the Falkland Islands which are populated by settlers from the home country, identify strongly with the home country and much prefer it to an arrangement with their largest neighbouring country (Argentina in the case of the Falklands). There is a presumption at the UN that the territories should move towards either independence, association with a local country, or integration on equal terms into their imperial country (e.g. French Guiana is an integral part of France).
While administering territories costs money, the big countries get benefits from them as well –there is an important supply of nickel in New Caledonia which makes it in France’s interests to hold on to the territory. New Caledonia also enables France to project its military and diplomatic power in the Pacific region, and France feared that an independent New Caledonia would quickly fall under the influence of China which is expanding its footprint in the region.
What is next for New Caledonia?
The referendum was much closer than expected. There had been some predictions before the vote that staying with France would win with 75 per cent of the vote but the eventual pro France vote was a little over 55 per cent. It seems that a significant number of non-Kanak voters also supported independence.
France has welcomed the result, President Macron saying that ‘it is a vote of confidence in the French republic, its future and its values.’
There will continue to be discussions between the French government and local political forces about the future government of New Caledonia and how it can best be reformed to represent the Kanak people’s identity.
The constitutional agreements provide for more referendums before 2021. The reasonably close result will encourage pro-independence campaigners to renew their efforts in the hope of getting a majority for their cause next time. There may yet be a new country appearing in the south Pacific.
Sources and further reading:
Article during campaign
Result and reaction
New Caledonia votes to remain part of France, FT
Map of New Caledonia
Map of Melanasia
Kanaks – link to blog also includes a number of images from New Caledonia’s history
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