A loose coalition of Pacific organizations is calling on the French government to postpone New Caledonia's independence referendum scheduled for Sunday, noting that territory is still saddled with a public health crisis.
"There is no reason for France to hold this last referendum on Kanak independence in the middle of a state of emergency and a pandemic," the coalition said in a statement.
Calendonia has recorded 12,409 Covid-19 cases and 279 related deaths since January 2020. It was reported that 60 percent of the Covid-linked deaths have occurred within Kanak communities.
"We are concerned that the referendum on Dec. 12 will exacerbate the health crisis in the country," reads the statement issued on behalf of Pacific Network on Globalization, Melanesian Indigenous Land Defense Alliance, Pacific Conference of Churches, Fiji Council of Social Services, Youngsolwara Pacific, Peace Movement Aotearoa, Pasifika, and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era.
Despite the opposition from indigenous independence parties, the French government hastily announced the schedule of New Caledonia's third and final self-determination vote saying "it “serves the common good to hold this consultative referendum as soon as possible.”
Union Caledonienne, Union Nationale pour l'independence Party, Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste and other nationalist groups in the New Caledonia Congress have written to the Minister for Overseas Territories, asking the referendum be rescheduled for 2022.
"We argue that the decision by France to go ahead with the referendum on 12th December ignores the impact that the current health crisis has on the ability of Kanaks to participate in the referendum and exercise their basic human right to self-determination," the Pacific coalition said.
The referendum, which is mandated under the 1998 Noumea Accord, will decide New Caledonia's political status. Whether it should remain a French territory or become a sovereign independent nation is a question that polarizes New Calendonians.
"We understand the Noumea Accord provides a timeframe that could accommodate holding the last referendum at any time up to November 2022," the coalition said. "Therefore, we see no need to hastily set the final referendum for 12th December 2021, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that is currently ravaging Kanaky/New Caledonia, and disproportionately impacting the Kanak population."
The groups warned that rushing New Caledonians into the polls might trigger violence.
"More concerning, is the worrying signs that it will put at further risk, the tenuous human rights situation and the security environment, created by France deploying over 2,000 troops into Kanaky for the referendum," the statement said.
They recalled that the Noumea Accord of 1998 ended a deadly civil conflict between the mostly pro-independence indigenous Kanak population and the descendants of European settlers.
"It set out a clear path for France to consult with the indigenous population on political independence in a series of three referendums, two of which have been held – the first in November 2018 and the second in October 2020," the coalition said.
"We believe that it is critical, for the Kanak people, that the final referendum on self-determination be conducted in the true spirit of the Noumea agreement and “under conditions that ensure transparency, fairness and legitimacy."
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The coalition also asked Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, to pull out the Observer PIF delegation led by Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.
"The Pacific Islands Forum’s engagement in this upcoming referendum vote as observers ignores the concerns of the Kanak people," the coalition said. "Rather, the delegation should act as mediators to bring about a more just and peaceful resolution to the question and timing of a referendum."