The November 4 referendum in New Caledonia was a breathtaking example of democracy in action, with new consequences for the French territory, France and our region.
The vote had been long-deferred, long-awaited and for some, long-feared. It took place peacefully, a major and poignant achievement that was unimaginable 30 years ago, before the Matignon/Noumea Accords were signed. They were designed to end civil war, promising the hand-over of a number of autonomies, to be followed by this referendum.
The result favoured staying with France by 56.4% to 43.6%. Key characteristics were the strong turnout, especially by young Kanaks, the relatively strong vote for independence, and bitter division between the two sides.
Voting queues were long, with many waiting two hours to vote. Voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, and the turnout was an extraordinary 80.63% of those eligible to vote (all Indigenous Kanaks, and a large proportion of those from other communities with longstanding residence in New Caledonia). This is the highest in recent history, with levels at the last French national elections 37% (2017) and provincial elections 67% (2014).
As French President Emmanuel Macron noted hours after the polls closed, France has fulfilled its promise and delivered a transparent process, legitimised by the unprecedented high turnout, the attendance of 13 UN observers and a Pacific Islands Forum observer team.
This relatively close result is probably the best all round for stability. The campaign has been bitter, and even commentary between leaders in television coverage of the results saw strong denunciation, particularly by loyalists.
While potentially stoking fear among loyalists for the future, the sizeable independence vote nonetheless may give pause to their tendency to triumphalism, challenging opinion polls and their own belief that they would win at least 60% and possibly 70% of the vote.
In their confidence, just days before the vote, the loyalists declared that with a massive win, they would seek to reverse the Noumea Accord guarantee of a second and potentially third referendum, an inflammatory step for independence supporters.
For independence leaders, the result vindicates their careful strategy of negotiating under the Noumea Accord for potentially two more votes in 2020 and 2022 in the event of a “no” vote, automatic participation for all Indigenous Kanaks, and mobilising the young.
Young Kanaks voted in large numbers, peacefully, and apparently for independence. This was so even in mainly European Noumea, which returned a surprising 26.29% “yes” vote.
With natural population growth, their numbers will increase as 18-year-olds become eligible to vote in 2020 and 2022. In contrast, the number of voters from other long-standing communities will vary little during this time-frame.
Independence leaders can also work to improve the vote from Kanak island communities, whose turnout remained at traditional lower levels, and those who may have responded this time to one independence party’s call for a boycott.
The relatively close result means both sides may be more likely to participate constructively in the ongoing dialogue process set up by France.
Macron has urged New Caledonians to overcome division and continue the 30-year process “in favour of peace”, emphasising dialogue. He referred to a future within France and the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe visited the territory on November 5 to continue dialogue and urge calm.
The task of France remains delicate: to manage, impartially, a process respecting the positions of both sides. It’s complicated by the fact the 43.6% favouring independence are largely Indigenous Kanaks. They are not leaving, they have regional support, and their interests must be considered in any long-term future.
On the positive side, positions canvassed by independence and loyalist parties alike threw up areas of shared interest that can form the basis of future cooperation. Provincial elections in May 2019 will clarify their support, but risk being undermined by extremist parties on both sides.
The result guarantees continued regional and international interest in the next steps. Reports of the Pacific Islands Forum and UN observer teams will be considered by their organisations. New Caledonia continues to be represented by the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) at the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).
Separatists in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), set for their own independence referendum next year, and West Papua, both the subject of MSG attention, will take heart.
Macron’s invocation of his Indo-Pacific vision engaging New Caledonia specifically to counter China gives a new edge to the interest in the referendum process by regional countries and partners.
Australia, meanwhile, will continue to retain a close interest in stability in our near neighbour, respecting the process while continuing cooperation with France.
When French President Emmanuel Macron visits Australia this week for talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and other ministers, it will be an occasion of more than usual significance.
Coming on the heels of Macron’s talks in Washington with US President Donald Trump, Macron’s meetings with Turnbull will be informed by his impressions of an idiosyncratic presidency.
High on the list for discussion will be trade, including Australia’s desire for quick progress on a free trade agreement with the European Union. Regional security interests and climate change will also have an airing.
Beyond all of that, Turnbull and Macron will no doubt seek to build on the amity apparent in France last week during the opening of the John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux, where French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave a poignant speech.
For many young Australians, this earth was their final safe place. For many of them, this earth was the final confidante of a thought or a word intended for a loved one from the other side of the world. Loved ones who would only learn the sad news several months later.
More can be made of these occasions than is warranted, but the centenary of the end of the first world war provides an opportunity for two liberal democracies to reaffirm their commitment to human freedoms and the rule of law.
Australia and France may find themselves on opposite sides of the world, but in an era disrupted by China’s rise and Russia’s flagrant disregard for international norms, these sorts of relationships become more important.
Perhaps surprisingly, Macron will be only the second French president to visit Australia in the history of relations that go back to the mid-19th century, when consular links were first established. (The only other one to visit was Francois Hollande in 2014 for the G20.)
The first and second world wars strengthened those bonds, but it is probably fair to say Australia and France have not been as close to each other as might have been given their extensive trading and investment partnership.
That may be about to change, given the need for Australia to nurture its security relationships beyond the American alliance at a time of considerable uncertainty in global affairs.
While the US relationship remains the cornerstone of Australian security, a broadening of defence ties with other like-minded Western democracies – and regional powers like Japan – becomes more pressing.
The UK’s Brexit is putting greater onus on Australia’s European ties, which will no longer be viewed through London’s prism. This may turn out to be a benefit to Australia of Britain’s Brexit debacle.
Underpinning the Australian-French security relationship is the Joint Statement of Enhanced Strategic Partnership signed in March 2017. This statement encourages the two countries to strengthen engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
In some respects, the strategic partnership could be regarded as symbolic. But it is having the effect of promoting enhanced contacts more or less across the board, including security, intelligence and climate issues.
The two sides have also been working on a logistical defence agreement to enable closer coordination in the Pacific, including combined force training exercises.
To an extent, this enhanced security relationship has been taking place under the radar. A growing security partnership was highlighted in Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper.
Both countries are active in arms control regimes such as the Australia Group, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Proliferation Security initiative.
Cyber security is another collaborative area.
None of this is to say that France has the capacity – or the intent – to be become an Indo-Pacific power. But it should be remembered that it retains Pacific possessions, namely New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna.
Indeed, it’s unlikely that Macron would have made the long journey to Australia if he was not also bound for New Caledonia, where its citizens will vote on independence from France in November this year. Macron will be seeking to forestall such an outcome.
Whatever criticisms might have been levelled at the choice of the French option ahead of German and Japanese contenders, the FSP will bolster a significant long-term strategic partnership.
Among Turnbull’s preoccupations in his discussions with Macron will be to ensure negotiations on an Australian-EU free trade agreement get off to a good start.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU means such an agreement has come more sharply into focus. France’s powerful farming lobby dictates that it will be a cautious participant in discussions about an FTA that would improve access for Australian primary producers.
Gaining Macron’s personal support for such a process will be important.
In this regard, Turnbull would be able to point out that commercial and investment ties between the two countries are already extensive, leaving aside the fact the EU is the largest source of foreign investment and second-largest trading partner for Australia.
In 2015-16, the EU’s direct investment in Australia totalled $157.6 billion, and Australia’s investment in the EU was valued at $111.8 billion. Total two-way merchandise and services trade was worth $95.6 billion.
Of this, France’s direct investment in Australia was valued at $28 billion, and Australian investment in France at $55 billion. Most of France’s largest listed companies operate in Australia, employing something like 60,000 people. Two-way trade was worth about $8 billion in 2016, weighted significantly in France’s favour.
France itself is the world’s sixth-largest economy, fifth-largest exporter and a financial hub in the Eurozone. Its status as a financial centre will be enhanced post-Brexit.
Then there is Macron, who has quickly established himself as a unique leader in a European context. His centrism as head of his own movement has not pleased all in the country he leads.
Macron’s relationship with Trump, built partly on their respective statuses as “ousiders”, gives the French president additional heft in an uncertain world.
His willingness to assert positions on climate change and the nuclear agreement with Iran that contradict those of the Trump administration further enhances his credibility. Turnbull would be advised to pay attention to what Macron has to say on a range of issues, not least climate.
As custodian of the Paris Accords, Macron has both a personal and professional interest in seeing the agreement strengthened, not diminished. His advice to the US Congress – “There is no Planet B” – resonated around the world.
Turnbull could do worse than endorse Macron’s choice of words.
The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:
major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.
The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.
Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.
Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:
We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.
British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.
Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:
Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.
Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.
The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).
The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:
Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.
The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.
The allies responsible for this week’s air strike have not claimed explicit authorisation under the Charter. Instead, their aim has been to establish the legitimacy of the strike. This approach was endorsed by the European Union and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
According to President Trump:
The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.
The Assad regime cannot be absolved of its brutality. Indeed, it is a fundamental objective of the post-second world war international legal order to save humanity from the “scourge of war” and promote human rights.
And there can be little doubt that the international legal system is far from perfect, having failed to protect populations around the world from gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed over seven years of civil war, and millions are now refugees or internally displaced. The complexity of the conflict has seen monitors cease to estimate a death toll.
However, efforts to establish an alternative foundation for military action, beyond what is currently legal, pose risks that must be grappled with.
If states are permitted to determine when force is warranted, outside the existing legal framework, the legitimacy of that framework may be fatally undermined. How could any consistency of response be ensured? By what standard will states distinguish between benevolent and “rogue” regimes?
Leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Prime Minister May on these grounds:
Does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi positions in Yemen, given their use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous?
It is relevant in this context that Saudi Arabia is a highly valued client of the British arms industry. According to War Child UK, total sales to the kingdom have topped £6 billion since the conflict in Yemen began. The UK has refused to support a proposed UN inquiry into allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are alleged against Myanmar, the Philippines and Israel, among other states, without attracting the kind of “humanitarian intervention” undertaken in Syria.
Jeremy Corbyn has made the case for diplomacy as the only reasonable way forward. Syria should not be a war theatre in which the agendas of external actors take precedence, he argues.
The US has long envisaged regime change in Syria, and stepped up sponsorship of opposition groups since 2009.
Robert Kennedy Jr. traced the history of US intervention in Syria from the first CIA involvement in 1949. He argues that this is another oil war, and says of broader interventionism in the Middle East:
The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool.
Central to US strategic thinking is the relationship between Syria and Iran. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seemed to say that a condition for US withdrawal is that Iran cease to function as an ally of Syria.
With the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.
A head-spinning series of events in the past few weeks have taken us from the United States pulling out of Syria, to analysts predicting the beginning of a third world war.
What has really happened in Syria, what are the ramifications of the joint strike from the US, France and Britain, and what can we expect from the key players?
Certainly, the mess in Syria and heightened tensions in the Middle East make us all fear an impending world war, especially when both the Russian and US presidents engage in a round of chest-thumping. Despite this, there is no certainty that a world war will be triggered from the Syrian conflict.
The latest chemical attack, allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian government, followed by the US, British, French retaliation, is really about aligning an unpredictable Trump with the Syria policy of the state and military establishment in Washington.
A world power like the US is seldom reactive. It often uses events as key moments to implement new policies or shift policies. An apparent correlation of events with policy implementation justifies the policy in the eyes of internal constituents and the wider international community.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Russia has followed an open and consistent policy: declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the legitimate government of Syria, always support his regime to ensure it doesn’t collapse, and morally justify its involvement as a struggle against terrorism. The unspoken policy is to build up a challenge to Western dominance over not only the Middle East, but geopolitical world order.
Yet, the US, and by extension Western policy on Syria, was tentative, unclear and seemed to change course over the seven-year conflict.
Under Barack Obama’s administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising in 2011. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to opposition groups, hoping they could muster enough power to dismantle Assad.
The Obama administration shifted its policy after a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 prompted it to push for a United Nations resolution demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles. This in turn gave impetus to peace talks in Geneva. Apparently, the stockpiles were not destroyed, as we have seen more chemical attacks.
Obama admitted his strategy failed, as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Russian President Vladimir Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016. Efforts to make progress in the Geneva talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to make any meaningful progress even as late as 2017.
In the early months of his presidency, the expectation was that Trump would change the US policy on Syria. It was uncertain what trajectory it would take, and when it would come to pass.
Not much happened until yet another chemical-gas attack by Assad in April 2017. The US responded with a massive missile attack, taking out 20% of Assad’s air force. The result was that the Trump administration committed to a more active involvement in Syria and the complete dismantling of the Islamic State presence in the country, but not necessarily the removal of Assad.
It is now apparent there was a fundamental difference between Trump and the key people in his administration in their understanding of the US’ Syria policy.
For Trump, it was always about eliminating IS. On April 3, he announced that the US’ primary mission in Syria was “getting rid of ISIS”. Since this had now been completed, he could bring the troops home.
Yet, in December 2017, Defence Secretary James Mattis said the US would continue its presence in Syria as a “stabilising force” beyond IS.
In January 2018, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the US would stay in Syria beyond IS, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iranian and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.
So, Trump’s withdrawal intentions, or rather the public announcement, came as a surprise to his own administration as well as the international community. In response, the US special envoy for the global coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, said:
We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we are going to complete that mission.
Other officials from the US administration and military made conflicting statements.
Trump’s withdrawal announcement opened the ground for other players to assert their plans. On April 4, Russia, Iran and Turkey held a summit in Turkey, at which Putin announced:
We have agreed to expand the entire range of our trilateral cooperation in Syria.
The trio’s plan included an intensified Turkish operation in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed “to clear all terror groups from Syrian border, including the YPG,” the Kurdish military force that was backed by the US in its bid to eradicate IS from Syria.
It seemed Syria would be left to Russia, Iran, Turkey and Assad. Until, of course, the most recent chemical attack in Douma, a suburb near Damascus, on April 7. The attack was blamed on the Assad government even though it vehemently denied it, and there were allegations of rebel involvement.
Importantly, the chemical attack conveniently served the faction in the US administration advocating for a greater involvement in Syria. Their arguments pushed Trump towards retaliation. In a matter of days, Trump went from vowing withdrawal from Syria to saying they have a “big price to pay”.
A military response in the form of a missile attack was inevitable, and so it took place on April 13, when the US and its allies, Britain and France, made “precision missile strikes against the Syrian government”. The six-day delay was really to gain international support for the attack so that it did not appear to be a showdown between Russia and the US.
The most recent events in Syria were really about aligning Trump’s understanding of Syrian policy with that of the state and military establishment. The policy is to stay in Syria beyond IS, preventing its revival and preventing Iranian and Assad forces from regaining territory.
It is unlikely there will be any other military strikes by the US and its allies anytime soon. There are two possible wild cards though – Trump’s unpredictability and a possible Russian retaliation.
Elements within the US administration in favour of continued US involvement in Syria will have to keep Trump calm – give him reasons why he should continue committing to Syria, while preventing a direct Russian-US confrontation. Building a coalition with France and Britain prior to the missile retaliation served this purpose. It gave Russia the impression that the matter was a concern with the international community, rather than just the US.
Trump’s exaggerating nature and bombastic language in his tweets run the risk of escalating the situation. But they also help contain Russia, which is always unsure what Trump may say and do next.
A Russian response beyond condemnation is unlikely. Putin recently won a landslide victory in the March presidential elections. He is in no hurry to thump his chest into an all-out brawl with the US due to internal politics.
Furthermore, Russia is already in a diplomatic crisis over the assassination attempt of a former spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in London.
The US, Britain and more than a dozen European countries expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation. Putin is already quite vulnerable in the international scene. He will not enter a fight he is not certain to win.
While the US and its allies may feel morally justified in attacking the Assad government targets, any such intervention is unlikely to help the people of Syria. They will continue to be collateral damage caught in the crossfire of geo-politics.