NEW CALEDONIA — As an archipelago under the auspices of the French Government, New Caledonia has an interesting history. In 1853, French settlers established a penal colony on the Islands. The effects of that colonization continue to contribute to a lack of cohesive identity, economic inequality and disproportionate access to resources with violations of basic human rights in New Caledonia typically target its young and indigenous peoples.
Today, New Caledonia is a French territory. In 1998, France signed the Noumeau Accord which gradually transfers governmental authority to local officials. This decision was largely in response to violent outbursts from the Kanaks, their indigenous people.
Despite hosting free elections, having an independent local congress and being represented in the French parliament, New Caledonia still suffers from this violence. In March of 2017, French High Commissioner Theirry Lataste deployed four armored vehicles and 130 additional police to assist local law enforcement in the suburb of St. Louis.
So, if France is working alongside the elected leadership to diplomatically transfer powers and hold free elections, why are so many indigenous peoples perpetuating cycles of violence? One answer is that disproportionate human rights in New Caledonia undermine the self-worth of the Kanak community with sentiments of inferiority.
According to a 2013 article in the Guardian, young Kanaks are suffering from a lack of cultural identity. As Psychiatrist Bruno Calandreau explained, “New Caledonia is an adolescent country, in search of an identity, gradually breaking loose from its motherland.”
Take a culture completely recreating its sense of purpose and add systemic racial bias.
While New Caledonia is home to 25 percent of the world’s nickel resources and boasts a GDP per capita comparable to that of New Zealand, some 8,000 people in the capital alone live without electricity and running water. Roughly 17 percent of the population lives in poverty, and the massive economic inequality benefits the Loyalty Islands and the Northern Territory — traditionally European areas.
Human rights in New Caledonia also suffer from biased educational systems. While 54 percent of Caledoche students pass secondary school, only 12 percent of Kanak students pass. Politicians want to institute reforms, but in-fighting prevents the passage of key legislation.
Human rights groups, such as the Human Rights League and the European Human Rights Court, are increasingly concerned about how these tense racial divisions affect business practices, prison conditions, workers’ rights issues and civic participation. Among those under investigation are nightclubs, radio stations and even police arrests for their mistreatment of indigenous peoples.
In addition, voting practices are under scrutiny as part of investigations into human rights in New Caledonia. As of a 2011 special report by the Human Rights Council, “as many as 1,500 Kanaks…are not registered on the proper electoral list (and) these voters are effectively disenfranchised.”
According to 2014 census data, less than 40 percent of citizens identify as Kanak. Twenty-seven percent identify as European; the rest identify as Caledonians. Half of the entire population are under 30 years old.
So, take a young government with younger citizens, riddle them with identity issues, an employment, education and wage disparity, a history of racial biases, and add a racially charged political decision.
In 2018, New Caledonians will vote on their independence. The country is heavily divided along a line demarcated by ethnicity. To the pro-French party, those pushing for independence would sacrifice the political and economic benefits of the French government. To the pro-Independents, French oversight echoes colonial control.
On both sides of the aisle, rhetoric is ramping up to condemn and belittle the validity of the other. Kanak politicians are labeling the Caledoche “immigrants,” while Caledoche are implying the Kanak are “unbearable.” As tensions rise, racism swells and violence escalates.
Amidst the serious issues facing the Kanak people, the Noumeau Accord made one crucial investment. Recognizing the need to build social cohesion, France committed to assisting and funding the Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture (ADCK). This organization maintains the Tjibaou Cultural Center in order to preserve the heritage of the Kanak people.
While the main goal of the Tjibaou Cultural Center is related to language, archeology and art, the center is also committed to encouraging contemporary expressions of Kanak culture. According to their website, “it is a place of identity affirmation and a space to encounter and create culture.” For a region troubled by a lack of cohesive identity and suffering from economic and social inequality, perhaps this thriving hub of cultural affirmation can heal the post-colonial divide of New Caledonia.
– Brandon J. White