26 Jun 2023

'We carry the voice of the colonised people' - delegates speak of independence ambitions at UN

11:50 pm on 26 June 2023
French, right, and Kanak flags.

French, right, and Kanak flags. Photo: AFP/Clotilde Richalet

France's grip on its overseas territories in the Pacific may be waning, with pro-independence delegates now claiming to have the support of the majority of their indigenous people in their territories.

The sensitive issues of indigenous rights were part of the speeches delivered by the delegates from New Caledonia and French Polynesia - French "overseas territories and collectivities" - at the UN's Special Committee on Decolonization which concluded on Friday 23 June in New York.

Kanak National Liberation Movement delegate Magalie Tingal-Lémé repudiated a controversial 2021 referendum that had rejected separation from France, which had been boycotted by pro-independence groups due to Covid concerns.

"We believe that through this illegitimate referendum, the French state has robbed us of our independence," said Tingal-Leme.

"We will never accept this outcome and so, unable to contest the results under French internal law, we are turning to the international community for an impartial institution to indicate how to resume a process that complies with international rules on decolonisation."

Magalie Tingal-Leme

Photo: United Nations

Tingal-Leme told the committee that the indigenous Kanaks of New Caledonia were unhappy with the status quo, accused France of breaking the UN's principles of freedom and equality.

"Every time we speak before your institution, we carry the voice of the colonised people," said Tingal-Leme.

"When we speak of colonisation, we are necessarily speaking of the people who have suffered the damage, the stigma and the consequences."

Pro-Independence Tahitian politician Mareva Lechat Kitalong also advocated for the independence of a collective of islands in Eastern Polynesian known as French Polynesia.

Like New Caledonia, the island group has been a part of France since the 19th century, but opinions of independence are more divided among the native French Polynesians who have experienced a more positive historical relationship with Paris than their Kanak neighbours.

Earlier this year, the pro-independence party Tāvini Huiraʻatira Party - led by Moetai Brotherson - won the territory's 2023 presidential elections by 38 votes to 19 over the ruling anti-independence Tapura Huiraatira Party.

Pro-independence party delegate Vannina Crolas told the committee that Brotherson had recently met with President Manuel Macron and that the French federal government had so far respected the democratic processes in French Polynesia, which at the moment appears to be moving towards independence.

"France values democracy as much as our government does, and if I stand here in front of you today it's because of democracy," said Crolas.

"I'm here to represent the government that our people elected democratically to confirm to your committee and the world, that the government of French Polynesia fully supports the proper decolonization and self-determination process under the scrutiny of the United Nations."

Vannina Crolas

Photo: Présidence de la Polynésie Française


Tokelau head of government Kelihiano Kalolo told the Special Committee on Decolonization that he was committed to self determination.

A referendum held in Tokelau in 2007 showed that more than 64 percent of Tokelauans supported removing the current political status of the islands, although however the results were not enough to bring about change.

Kalolo said there was renewed interest and that he was pushing for independence.

Ulu-O-Tokelau Faipule Kelihiano Kalolo and Tokelau Administrator briefing the United Nations Decolonization Committee on recent key developments and challenges in Tokelau.

Ulu-O-Tokelau Faipule Kelihiano Kalolo and Tokelau Administrator briefing the United Nations Decolonization Committee on recent key developments and challenges in Tokelau. Photo: Twitter/ @FSarufa

He stressed he would maintain strong economic ties with New Zealand.

"The General Fono agreed to revive the conversation on self determination and the future political status of Tokelau, and we plan to initiate that in the second half of the year," said Kalolo.

"Madame chair, the relationship between Tokelau and the Government of New Zealand is significant and we will continue to look towards New Zealand and development partners for support."

The Special Committee on Decolonization meeting concludes this week.