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Islands conflict: Port Vila dispute spotlights border battle with French
06:06 am GMT+12, 07/04/2010, Vanuatu

By Nic Maclellan from Islands Business Magazine, April Issue, website:

A political dispute in Port Vila has highlighted a long-running territorial dispute between France and Vanuatu over Matthew and Hunter islands.

In January, Vanuatu’s Opposition Leader Ham Lini called for the resignation of Internal Affairs Minister Moana Carcasses. During a visit to New Caledonia, the Vanuatu minister reportedly proposed the two uninhabited islands could become a condominium shared by Vanuatu and France.

Carcasses denied he had undermined his country’s official position—that the two southern islands belong to Vanuatu rather than France.

Refusing to resign, Carcasses said his comments in Noumea were “not what you’d call an official view and nothing to do with the government capacity. I went to New Caledonia for three things related to my ministry. This is my personal opinion.”

Prime Minister Edward Natapei rejected the Opposition’s call for Carcasses’ resignation, stating: “The government’s stance on the issue of Matthew and Hunter islands remains unchanged, and the responsibility for implementing related policy initiatives and commitments rests entirely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I am committed to ensure that political stability is maintained through continued solid support of government policy stances, including in relation to Matthew and Hunter being part of the Republic of Vanuatu.”

Behind this latest political dispute lies a long history between France and Vanuatu over the two islands.

Claiming the islands

Matthew (Umaenupne) and Hunter (Umaeneag) are uninhabited volcanic islands, located to the east of New Caledonia and the south-east of Vanuatu.
There were colonial disputes over the islands, even before the joint French-British condominium of New Hebrides gained independence as Vanuatu in 1980. Britain claimed the two islands in 1965 as part of the New Hebrides.

In response, French officials placed brass plaques on Matthew and Hunter in December 1975 to assert sovereignty—the modern equivalent of the 19th century French explorers who buried a bottle on Pacific beaches to symbolise their annexation of territory.

After Vanuatu’s independence in 1980, a delegation of ni-Vanuatu officials and customary elders visited Hunter in March 1983 aboard the patrol boat, RVS Tukoro. As well as placing ‘namale’ leaves on the island, they raised the Vanuatu flag on Hunter and removed the French plaques. In July that year, France in turn sent a troop of French legionnaires to reassert sovereignty, marking their visit with a Bastille Day ceremony on 14 July.

These assertions of national pride are important under international maritime law, according to Don Rothwell, Professor of International Law at the Australian National University.

Professor Rothwell told ISLANDS BUSINESS that in cases of territorial dispute between two countries, “any country needs to act with promptness to assert sovereignty over disputed territory. Any failure to protest or to seek to protest to protect a country’s position can possibly be quite fatal in the longer term in these legal cases.”

Law of the Sea

In 1982, the United Nations adopted the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to establish a modern legal system for determining a country’s maritime domain. Under the international treaty, a country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) gives sovereignty and control over marine resources around every islet, reef and archipelago.

For France, with its far-flung colonial empire, this treaty provides significant advantages.

France has only 340,290 square kilometres of EEZ in Europe. But its overseas territories and departments add 11 million square kilometres worldwide—over seven million in the Pacific alone. French Polynesia has an EEZ of over 5,030,000 square kilometres, while New Caledonia adds 1,740,000 square kilometres, and Wallis and Futuna a further 300,000.

Even though France first signed UNCLOS on 10 December 1982, it only ratified the treaty after the end of nuclear testing in 1996. With all its overseas possessions, France has the world’s third largest EEZ, after the United States and Russia. Without these territories in the Pacific, Caribbean, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, France’s EEZ would rank 45 in the world.

A problem arises when there is a territorial dispute about which country has sovereignty over an outer island or uninhabited reef within overlapping EEZs. These boundary disputes have economic implications, given the potential to exploit undersea natural resources and the revenues from foreign fishing fleets operating in the Pacific’s EEZs.

In November 2004, the French Navy patrol boat La Moqueuse seized Jin Chin 1, a Taiwanese vessel, fishing near Matthew and Hunter, claiming it was illegally operating in New Caledonia’s EEZ. However, the boat was licenced to fish in Vanuatu waters, as it was part owned by a Fijian corporation. After diplomatic protests by Fiji and Vanuatu, French authorities released the vessel.

Extending the continental shelf

The issue of Matthew and Hunter was raised again in 2007, when the French government attempted to extend New Caledonia’s maritime boundaries by lodging a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN-CLCS).

Like Great Britain (which also maintains a global network of overseas territories), France asserts the right to extend territorial EEZs from 200 to 350 nautical miles.

This attempt to extend New Caledonia’s boundaries beyond the traditional 200-nautical mile limit is based on scientific studies that document the underwater continental shelf and show that it is the natural extension of the land.

Under Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can ask the UN-CLCS to make a ruling on the outer limits of the undersea continental shelf. This commission can only make recommendations to coastal states and has no authority to determine the legitimacy of territorial claims. To support its claims, France maintains an extensive programme of undersea mapping and oceanographic studies. The French government has established a programme known as “Extraplac”, to co-ordinate scientific research and prepare submissions to the United Nations.

In August and September 2004, France sent the oceanographic ship Atalante to do undersea surveys of the continental shelf around New Caledonia, establishing the data for its claim to the UN Commission.

Challenging France

On 3 July 2007, Vanuatu’s then Prime Minister Ham Lini wrote to newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy, objecting to the French submission to the United Nations regarding the extension of the New Caledonian continental shelf.

This objection, based on Vanuatu’s claims over Matthew and Hunter, was made official later that month when Vanuatu took its case directly to the UN secretariat.

In response to Vanuatu’s protests, France requested that the UN-CLCS Commission refrain from considering the portion of its submission which related to that sector of New Caledonia’s continental shelf.

In an August 2009 diplomatic note, Vanuatu’s UN Ambassador Donald Kalpokas explained: “The government of Vanuatu notes that Matthew (Leka) and Hunter (Umaenupne) Islands are claimed by the French Republic.

“In its submission to the commission dated 22 May 2007, the French republic initially claimed a continental shelf extending from Matthew (Leka) and Hunter (Umaenupne) Islands. By its note to the commission dated 11 July 2007, Vanuatu protested France’s claims in this regard on the grounds that Matthew and Hunter Islands are part of Vanuatu and hence, France’s claim to them and to any continental shelf attributable to them, is disputed.”

Even though France withdrew its request for the commission to determine the continental shelf boundary with Vanuatu, Elie Jarmache (the head of mission for France’s Secrétariat Général de la mer) emphasised that this withdrawal by France “should not be construed as recognition of the position of Vanuatu”.

At the same time, Vanuatu also lodged a formal note to the United Nations challenging part of Fiji’s maritime claim to the UN Commission. With limited resources, Pacific islands countries rely on technical support from the Maritime Boundaries Programme, managed by the Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC).

Last year, SOPAC assisted Vanuatu to update its maritime boundaries, as part of the broader regional programme. In May 2009, Maritime Boundaries staff conducted a review and verification exercise to determine the Vanuatu Archipelagic Straight Baselines (ASBs), opening the way for them to be formalised under Vanuatu’s Maritime Zones Act of 1981.

The Kéamu Accord

The resolution of the long-running dispute over Matthew and Hunter may draw on custom, with new dialogue between New Caledonia’s Customary Senate and the Malvatumauri (Vanuatu’s national council of chiefs).

In agreements signed on 4 April 2009 in Noumea and on 23 July on the island of Tanna, customary leaders from the two countries celebrated “the historic ties between the two fraternal peoples of Melanesia”. They reaffirmed the cultural paths linked through Tafea Province 0 in Vanuatu and the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia.

As part of this cultural process, the Kanak independence movement Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) supports Vanuatu’s position in the territorial dispute. The FLNKS, rather than the government of New Caledonia, is a full member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which also includes Vanuatu, PNG, Fiji and Solomon Islands.

In July 2009, just days before the 3rd France-Oceania summit, Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei and FLNKS spokesperson Victor Tutugoro joined customary leaders in Lenakel, Tanna, to witness the signing of the Kéamu Agreement, which recognises that Matthew and Hunter Islands belong to Vanuatu.

Tutugoro states that “the indigenous Kanak people do not have a traditional history on these islands”, in contrast to customary authorities from Vanuatu’s Tafea province. For Tutugoro, the signing of the document “is a solemn commitment between the Kanak people and the people of Vanuatu that whatever the political and institutional future of New Caledonia, Matthew and Hunter Islands will remain the property of the people of Vanuatu.”

According to international law expert Rothwell, this customary agreement does not have legal authority at the level of state to state negotiations in the United Nations. But Rothwell notes that while the Keamu Accord has “no contemporary significance in legal terms, it points to a possible future solution on a political basis”.
So while diplomats argue at the United Nations, customary agreements may provide a way forward.

With Vanuatu scheduled to take the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum later this year, Melanesian solidarity may yet help resolve the troubled history of two uninhabited islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.


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