Outgoing Forum Secretary General, Henry Puna has expressed concern over the unrest in New Caledonia, reflecting on the sensitive issue that has been brewing since the referendum in December 2021.

“I was there to monitor the referendum when it was taken,” he stated.

“And it was unfortunate that it was allowed to go ahead during that time.”

Puna lamented the lack of consideration for Kanak customs, which necessitate a year of mourning for the deceased.

He believed that holding the referendum during this period disrespected their traditions, leading to their reluctance to participate.

“We were in the middle of COVID. And the Kanak custom is that when somebody passes they mourn that for one year. And so, they weren’t allowed that freedom. And so as a result, they didn’t want to take part in the referendum because they couldn’t go against their tradition and go campaigning, or do other work.

“That’s disrespectful to their custom. So for me, that was very unfortunate,” SG Puna told PACNEWS in a hybrid press conference from Rarotonga.

Puna emphasised that adherence to the processes outlined in the Noumea Accord could have prevented the premature referendum.

He acknowledged the grievances of the Kanak people, urging open and honest dialogue among leaders to address the underlying issues.

“To see the Kanaks, protesting right now is very unfortunate, because it does raise some issues that needs to be resolved, but I think it can be resolved in the wisdom of our leaders at this time.

“That’s something that we really need to talk about, and talk about openly and honestly, what the causes of the problem are and what the solutions can be,” said SG Puna.

Forum Chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister, Mark Brown, also weighed in on the situation, recognising New Caledonia’s quest for greater autonomy and independence.

Both New Caledonia and French Polynesia are French territories and are also members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

“And this is in recognition of the calls that made for greater autonomy and greater independence that is coming from the people.”

Brown highlighted the significance of sovereignty and independence for Pacific Island countries, echoing New Caledonia’s desire for self-determination.

“I think from my perspective, New Caledonia as part of the Melanesian group of Islands, and if we look at our Pacific Island countries, members of the Forum, nearly all of our countries were former colonies. So we are recent, independent states.

“And if there’s one thing that specific country’s value, it is the sovereignty and independence of being able to have this have control over the destiny of your own country,” Brown told PACNEWS from Rarotonga.

As a member of the Forum, he pledged support and assistance to navigate the path forward, aiming to prevent conflict and fulfill the aspirations of New Caledonia’s populace.

“So from my initial view of the unrest that’s occurring in Caledonia, it is caused to recognise greater autonomy and greater independence from the people on those islands.

“So it is something that as a member of the Forum now, we will be able to provide support, assistance to these member countries as to the best way forward,” said PM Brown.

Tensions in New Caledonia have been inflamed by the French government’s plans to give the vote to tens of thousands of French immigrants to New Caledonia.

The enfranchisement would create a significant obstacle to the autonomy aspirations of the indigenous Kanak people.