Report – By Harriet Harvey in Noumea
The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) wants joint action within the Pacific region on three key issues - independence for New Caledonia, reviving the denuclearisation debate, and pressing for international action on climate change.
It is a so-called “mini United Nations”, taking in four governments – Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – together with the Kanak liberation movement from New Caledonia, the FLNKS. The MSG credo is that each country needs the others, especially to have any kind of voice in world forums, where major powers dominate.
The body got into dispute with the French government ruling New Caledonia, by deciding as early as 1988 that the FLNKS, not France, would be admitted to membership.
Jimmy Naouma, head of the FLNKS unit at the headquarters of the agency in Port Vila, Vanuatu, says that working for decolonisation of the territory is a main priority. He says much would be gained from that in the region, especially in trade, because of New Caledonia’s natural resources, including the large nickel deposits, and overall strength of its economy.
“MSG countries see New Caledonia as a door to Europe,” Naouma says.
The MSG is closely monitoring the 1998 Noumea Accord, set up to provide terms under which New Caledonia might become independent.
This accord states that the territory must have a referendum on the issue by 2018, to be run by a joint government made up of the two sides: on one hand the anti-independence political parties backed by the French settler community, and on the other hand the FLNKS.
The anti-independence parties got the majority in elections held this year and the MSG is studying the application of voter eligibility rules, which limit French participation only to people resident in the territory since 1998.
It says it has identified 1800 Kanaks who had never left the territory excluded from the electoral roll, and 3000 ineligible French who were included.
Much animosity is built on a French policy of the 1980s that encouraged people to migrate to New Caledonia from metropolitan France, and obtain full voting rights when they got there.
Naouma says the main argument, that the Melanesian Kanak community are the original inhabitants, cannot be denied.
“Slowly a great number of people are realising New Caledonia belongs in the Pacific, culturally and geographically,” says Naouma.
Independence will happen once France transfers five remaining state powers to the territory government: courts, currency, defence, foreign trade and police.
“The new government will have to look at sharing these powers, especially defence, with countries like Australia or France,” Naouma says.
Rose Wete, Corporate Development Officer at the MSG and herself from New Caledonia, adds that on the basis of its economic position the territory would become a leader in the region.
In the meantime, “the whole system has disadvantaged the Kanaks” she avers.
Denuclearisation is the second, and a relatively new issue for the MSG, but a deep concern because much of the Pacific community relies heavily on fisheries, for both subsistence and cash trade, and on a clean environment for tourism.
After the end of nuclear testing at Moruroa Atoll in 1996, anxieties about nuclear waste, and damage, subsided, being put onto the back-burner at regional gatherings of states.
It has been revived now, over transhipments of radioactive waste, with ships taking long routes to and from ports in Asia. Periodic talk about setting up international nuclear waste dumps in Australia has contributed to this alert among the neighbours.
“In 2013 our leaders proposed that the transhipment of nuclear waste become part of our investigations because the Pacific Islands Forum dropped the game,” says Wete.
“If we don’t pay close attention we could be subject to a nuclear spill that could have a devastating effect on our economies, environment and our communities for future generations.
“At the moment we are discussing with our subcommittee at the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) what we can do at a region level and how they can provide technical help.”
The CTBTO works for a ban on any nuclear explosions on the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, underwater or underground, and can facilitate the MSG taking its case to the United Nations (UN).
Climate change was taken up as a priority after rising sea levels posed a threat to Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, causing extensive environmental harm, and cultural tensions over the relocation of people from an island village.
“This is a huge issue because land is such an important part of our culture,” says Wete.
Once again, the Melanesian group has taken up the case as a “comeback” issue, noting that action by major powers had slowed down, after the earlier period of worldwide concern about the “drowning islands”.
It is going to the United Nations on that issue as well, pointing out the precarious situation of the coastal communities and islands in the geographical zone of Melanesia.
Can such a grouping of governments from small states, or in the case of the FLNKS a nationalist movement, take effective and concrete action?
Wete explains how it might, listing a set of projects carried out since the early 1990s, setting the scene for a new 25-year programme now being put in place, a “road map” for change.
Those projects include:
- A trade agreement in 1993 led to freer trade relations among the member countries;
- In 2003, the results of an investigation into the workings of the Matignon/Noumea Accords on New Caledonia were deposited with the Treaties Division of the UN Decolonisation Committee, with hearings there continuing again in mid-2014;
- The MSG has used the information gained to construct a plan on how the FLNKS can obtain independence for New Caledonia;
- In 2007, diplomatic initiatives saw the MSG set up as a formal institution, recognised under international law;
- In 2012, a skilled migration scheme was agreed, with such impacts as nurses going from country to country, and pilots moving to Papua New Guinea from Fiji;
- In 2013, construction of a management handbook for effective fiscal management;
- Also in 2013, agreement in principle that an independent West Papua should join the MSG, and a contentious decision to give observer membership, in the meantime, to Indonesia as the governing power; and
- The establishment of consultative bodies like the Police Commissioners’ Conference, with outcomes such as the setting up of the police academy in Fiji.
Harriet Harvey is a member of a Queensland University of Technology student journalism bureau team reporting on the Pacific. The team was based at the Pacific Media Centre in Auckland for a week.