29 May 2013

In United Nations, dark shades of France's Pacific past

By Denise Fisher

Visiting Fellow at ANU's Centre for European Studies. 

The Interpreter - Weblog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy

On 17 May, French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru (pictured below) achieved a long-sought after goal. The UN General Assembly passed a consensus resolution to reinscribe French Polynesia on the UN Committee of Decolonisation's list of non-self governing territories. This means French Polynesia should be treated under UN principles of self-determination, aiming at self-government in one of three forms: sovereign independence, complete integration with a sovereign state, or some form of association with a sovereign state.

France took the unusual step of boycotting the UN General Assembly meeting, and the UK, US, Germany and the Netherlands disassociated themselves from the resolution. All except Germany have overseas territories.

The term 'reinscription' is being used because in 1947, France declined to allow its territories to be seen as non-self governing territories, and would not report on them as the UN charter required. When the UN created a Committee on Decolonisation in 1960, it listed territories under its tutelage, but France continued to refuse to allow its territories to be included.

The relative ease of Temaru's victory, with the support of the three South Pacific island countries that sponsored the resolution (Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu), was all the more impressive when compared with the public battle, and civil war, that had led to a UN General Assembly resolution reinscribing its sister Pacific territory, New Caledonia, in 1986. Then, France conducted a public campaign for years opposing reinscription. Even after the Resolution was passed, France refused to cooperate with the UN's Decolonization Committee until 2004.

The French have claimed that 'the right to self-determination cannot be exercised against the will of the concerned populations', a reference to a local territorial election in early May, when the pro-France, pro-autonomy parties won power over Temaru's pro-independence group and speedily passed a resolution calling for the UN vote to be postponed. France had headed off a UN resolution until last week on the basis of 'waiting' for that local election to be held. But, as Solomon Islands UN Ambassador Beck has noted, the results of this election must never be equated with a referendum on self-determination. It is an election under the authorisation and statutory provisions of the sovereign power, France.

If France wants the international community to respect local elections, a number of related developments deserve consideration as well. From the time of his election in 2004, Oscar Temaru and his pro-independence government have been frustrated by pro-France machinations. These included even a re-run of the initial election (whichTemaru again won), and perpetual floor-crossings by individual members, resulting in 12 changes in president over the last ten years. And in August 2011, the French Polynesian Territorial Assembly passed a resolution seeking self-determination within UN processes.

France is also being inconsistent with its recent approach to UN processes involving New Caledonia. In 2004, after 60 years of rejecting a UN decolonisation role for New Caledonia, France quietly began submitting reports as Administering Authority of New Caledonia, implicitly subjecting itself to UN decolonisation procedures.

France's position is also puzzling in view of the impressive record it has in New Caledonia, through its negotiation and implementation of the Matignon/Noumea Accords, which themselves provide for a self-determination referendum after 2014. Presumably it is the success of these Accords that led France to comply, finally, with UN decolonisation procedures on New Caledonia.

At a time when France is noting that its Pacific territories make it a maritime power and a factor for stability in the Pacific, France's non-participation in the UN resolution is disappointing and is likely to raise old questions about its intent for its territories and for the region.

Photo by Flickr user Parti socialiste.