As Emmanuel Macron prepares to visit Port Vila on Thursday, a leading member of Vanuatu’s Parliament has called on the French President to address the long-running dispute over Matthew and Hunter Islands and the contested maritime boundary between New Caledonia and Vanuatu.
MP for Tanna Johnny Koanapo told the Vanuatu Daily Post that “President Macron should declare that Matthew and Hunter are an integral part of Vanuatu and therefore should direct that processes are done by the two countries to finalise the delimitation of our maritime boundaries.”
Umaenupne (Matthew) and Umaeneag (Hunter) are uninhabited volcanic islands located east of New Caledonia and southeast of Vanuatu. Both are disputed territory, claimed by the Republic of Vanuatu and France, the administering colonial power in New Caledonia. Today, legislation in both Vanuatu and New Caledonia claims the two islands as part of each country’s territory, with significant implications for their Exclusive Economic Zone and control of maritime resources.
In February 2018, delegations from France and Vanuatu met in Sydney for the first round of talks to resolve the outstanding boundary dispute. A second round of negotiations took place in Brussels, Belgium, in June 2019. However France has long delayed accepting a further round of talks on the border dispute.
As part of his five-day tour in the Pacific, President Emmanuel Macron will travel from New Caledonia to Vanuatu – formerly the joint British-French condominium of the New Hebrides – to promote France’s role as an Indo-Pacific power. However, as Vanuatu prepares to celebrate the anniversary of independence on 30 July, there are long-running issues to resolve with the former colonial power.
France’s position on the maritime boundary is also contested by indigenous Kanak leaders in New Caledonia. Both the Sénat coutumier (Kanak Customary Senate) and the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) independence movement say the two islands belong to Vanuatu.
On 4 April 2009, the members of the Sénat coutumier issued a declaration stating: “We recognise through custom the historical fact that Matthew and Hunter islands belong in kastom to the chieftainships of Tanna.” Their declaration highlighted the “lasting relations between the Loyalty Islands Province and the Tafea Province … to allow the free movement of people and trade to prosper between the two countries without ulterior motives.”
In July 2009, delegations from the Government of Vanuatu and New Caledonia’s FLNKS met on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu’s Tafea Province. Together with customary leaders, they signed the Kéamu Accord, described as “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 always remain the property of the people of Vanuatu.”
For Tanna MP Johnny Koanapo, the visit of President Macron provides an opportunity to resolve the long-running dispute.
“The indigenous peoples of New Caledonia have made that declaration through their Customary Senate,” he said. “We do not have to fight all the way to the International Court of Justice and bear the costs to reclaim what is ours.”