Truly concerning

2 weeks ago
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The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has serious concerns about the ongoing unrest in New Caledonia and France’s handling of the situation.

Local media is reporting “nightmare” like scenes continue in the French territory, buildings are still being set alight, and roadblocks still sprout up in defiance of the heavy security presence.

Thousands of reinforcements have been sent from across France, several pro-independence leaders have been arrested and sent to prisons across mainland France, and there are concerns about militarisation and further escalation of conflict.

Forum secretary general Baron Waqa says the PIF is doing its “best to try and maintain peace and stability at this time”.

“We are truly concerned at what is happening in New Caledonia,” Waqa said when he fronted regional press in his first briefing since taking up office last month.

“We are engaging our chair of the forum, as well as hopefully we can get the Troika to sit and work on some issues, how we will address this.”

He confirmed the PIF chair has communicated with the New Caledonia president, adding they hope to put in place certain actions and a timeline to ensure certain decisions were reached.

“It is quite volatile at the moment. It is still very, very active, even though it is quietened down a bit, it flares up again, that’s how it goes.”

The forum hopes to step up its engagement with Paris ahead of the PIF leaders meeting in Tonga next month, he said.

“We would like to see that this issue be dealt with soon as soon as possible.”

The French ambassador to the Pacific, Véronique Roger-Lacan, has spoken with the Troika, made up of past, present and future forum chairs, over the phone.

But she has questioned whether forum involvement would be productive.

“The PIF is of course (an) important regional relevant organisation,” Roger-Lacan told RNZ Pacific in June.

“At the same time, it is very important to bear in mind that we already have two dialogue processes going on one the national one, which as mentioned and launched by President (Macron) back home, and the second is C24 one.”

A geopolitical commentator, Dr Meg Keen, said there was a need for dialogue.

“There is no question that dialogue is needed, and that we cannot go on in the current way, it would not be positively resolved.

“We see the tensions and the conflict flaring up again and again, there needs to be a different approach to resolving this and creating a pathway forward.”

She said France could have brought peace through a “regional police task force” set up under the Biketawa Declaration.

“That was an opportunity that I think was missed to have invited in regional players to help bring calm in a situation that needed policing — a regional police taskforce to come in — that is still a possibility but we are waiting for the invitation for that to happen,” she said.

Dr Keen said the Pacific way of doing things has a track record of working very well.

“That tends to have a calming impact because you have your brothers and sisters, the family coming in, helping you get peace, and you diminish the tension between the parties.”

But she added there was no indication that France is going to walk away from New Caledonia anytime soon – a sentiment echoed by Roger-Lacan’s in an earlier interview with RNZ Pacific.

“What the French state wants to do is in the interest of the stability and peace and prosperity of the of the Pacific,” she said in May.

However, Waqa is concerned about the movement of weapons and armoured vehicles being deployed in New Caledonia.

He said Pacific leaders have raised other issues they hope to resolve through dialogue.

“With regards to those who are now imprisoned or in custody, and on mainland [France], that is also a concern. We are raising that as well,” he said.

Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies pro-vice chancellor, Distinguished Professor Steven Ratuva does not agree with Paris’ denials about militarisation of the territory.

“(France is) desperate in terms of its optics, in terms of how it’s perceived a colonial power in this day and age,” Professor Ratuva said.

He said “organised state coercion” by France is, by definition, militarisation.

“It is militarised in the sense that the guns are used, and organised state coercion is being used,” he said.

He said colonisation was only possible through the use of the military.

“The British used it, the French use it, the Americans are using it, the Russians and so forth. So, by definition, it is militarisation, it is the use of organised force of coercion,” Ratuva said.

Ratuva says France has been a colonial power since the 1800s.

Dr Keen said the militarisation of New Caledonia is nothing new.

“It has always had this presence, it has had its gendarmerie there, it has had that naval base there and it’s an enormous naval base.

“This is something that’s been there for a long time and it is the way France is seeking to protect these enormous economic exclusion zones, which it counts as part of its territories at the moment.”

Professor Ratuva said France needs its territories for strategic purposes.

“France needs its colonies because it gives that sense of global grandness.

Now for France to be able to maintain the territories in the Pacific means that it becomes the second largest country in the world in terms of sea area. France itself has nothing, just English Channel.”

More than three-thousand security forces have been deployed and armoured vehicles with machine gun capability have also been sent to New Caledonia.

Pro-independence groups say a path to independence is needed, while Paris maintains independence is not the only solution.

Adding fuel to the fire is the French snap elections.

Professor Ratuva warns any beam of hope for decolonisation in the French territories will dim if a far-right government is elected in the elections.

“Every time French politics shifts to the right, the prospects of decolonisation diminish,” he said.

France’s far-right is celebrating a win in the first round of voting.

The deciding round will take place his weekend.

“We know that election will play a major role particularly in the political process from going forward,” PIF deputy secretary general Esala Nayasi said.

He said the Pacific Islands Forum will decide on its next steps when the leaders meet in Japan for the 10th Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting from July 16-18.
• LYDIA LEWIS is an RNZ Pacific journalist. The views expressed in this article are hers and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper. || OPINION || FORUM concern…Read more by Lydia Lewis

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