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New Caledonia: Australia must show assertive impartiality

New Caledonia: Australia must show assertive impartiality

Thirty years ago to the week, New Caledonia was torn apart by violent protests. The pro-independence FLNKS boycotted an election and town halls were burned throughout the country. It provoked a four-year long civil war euphemistically known as 'the events'.

At first, Australia supported the Kanak independence movement diplomatically. But Foreign Minister Hayden warned on 19 November 1984 that violent tactics would cost the Kanaks Australia's 'immense sympathy'. This sympathy dissipated when the FLNKS began to train its militants in Gaddafi's Libya.

Thirty years later, New Caledonia is an almost invisible blip on Australia's strategic radar. Aside from the thorough coverage of local politics by several experts, our policy towards this fragile neighbour appears to be one of 'benevolent disregard', as Denise Fisher brilliantly put it.

This is not good news for local peace and security. Tensions are flaring on this island of past grievances and hot tempers. A Kanak leader earlier this week told his militants that 'we are going to organise ourselves, and fight.' At a time when the country has seen the most serious political violence in decades, it is anyone's guess whether this fighting talk will remain rhetorical. [fold]

There are serious reasons to worry that the country could once again descend into violence, a development Australia cannot neglect.

In a country as polarised and heavily armed as New Caledonia, any outside diplomatic interventions ought to follow the 'Do No Harm' principle. This may be why Canberra has been so cautious in not siding with either party. This is an excellent starting point for our policy towards New Caledonia.

French President François Hollande, who met Prime Minister Abbott on Tuesday, visited New Caledonia after the G20. Although some hardliners (on both sides) hoped his Government would pick a side, Hollande was crystal clear that France's role would be one of strict impartiality. He vowed to maintain law and order and to support the will of New Caledonia's population, as expressed at future self-determination referendums (by 2018 at the latest). 

Canberra should follow in those footsteps by adopting an impartial standpoint. That said, I would advocate Australia adopting a more assertive impartiality.

As Nic Maclellan has argued, the 'belief in Canberra that New Caledonia's Nouméa Accord process will run smoothly to its conclusion needs to be tested, rather than just assumed as the basis for policy-making.' Canberra should ask some hard questions about this assumption.

Firstly, what can Australia do to prevent armed violence in New Caledonia? Some Kanak independence leaders are already contesting the legitimacy of future referendums due to issues relating to the electoral roll, and are expressing the intention to negotiate their independence bilaterally with the French Government if (as is expected) they lose at the ballot box. The local pro-French majority will not lie down and accept this, so it could could spell a return to the nasty and violent days of November 1984. 

Australian diplomats and policy-makers ought to begin thinking right now about how to prevent such a scenario. How, while remaining strictly impartial, can Australia help to prevent violence in our neighbouring country?

The second question is the toughest: what is Australia's Plan B? It would be better that locals sort this conflict out peacefully rather than requiring a billion-dollar peace enforcement mission which would drag Australia into a dangerous conflict (not that France would want such an intervention). Still, it's worth pondering a back-up plan if Plan A fails.

Finally, what are Australia's strategic interests in New Caledonia? One Australian miner I spoke to warned me that he thought instability was on the cards and that international capital flight would ensue. I hope he's wrong. But this does raise the question of how Australia can guarantee its mining interests in New Caledonia if the local political climate deteriorates. Australia's strategic policy should be guided by the commitment – as in Fiji – to see a peaceful and democratic transition of power, and to avoid the recourse to force or coups, which could destabilise the South Pacific region.

I don't have any answers at this stage, only questions which are worth pondering in Canberra.

The single policy recommendation I would make is that the Australian Consulate-General in Noumea could play a greater public diplomacy role by reaffirming Australia's commitment to supporting a peaceful and democratic power transition in New Caledonia. This should not offend the French, since Hollande is on the same wavelength as Australian policy. But it could contribute to strengthening the hands of peace-makers locally, and ensuring that no Plan B is ever necessary.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user sebastien panouille.

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