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French Polynesia’s pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru has accused the environment minister of defamation over seabed mining.

Last week, Environment Minister Heremoana Maamaatuaiahutapu claimed Temaru’s party Tavini Huiraatira did not support an assembly vote on a seabed mining moratorium because Temaru had signed a mining contract with China when he was president.

Temaru denied this, saying it had never been a policy of Tavini Huiraatira party to “sell off the country or its soul”.

The moratorium called for a block on any activity until more is known as there had to be evaluations to understand the risks seabed mining posed to the environment.

Temaru said his party did not support the assembly’s moratorium text because it did not tie mining rights to decolonisation.

The Tavini wants the moratorium linked to a 2016 UN resolution which urges the administering power to guarantee the permanent sovereignty of the people of French Polynesia over its natural resources, including marine resources and submarine minerals.

While Temaru’s party wants to formalise recognition of the property rights of French Polynesia, France considers the exclusive economic zone of French Polynesia to be a French national asset.

Huge economic zone
French Polynesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is more than 4.7 million sq km and accounts for almost half of the water surface under French jurisdiction.

Temaru said the UN process called on France to respect the territory’s right to sovereignty over all resources, including those at sea.

He said under French law, the state could claim French Polynesia’s resources if they were declared of strategic value.

Paris believes it has the rights to the territory’s seabed and continental shelves, which are thought to be rich in rare earths.

Three years ago, France submitted a claim to extend the continental shelves in French Polynesia by almost a quarter of a million sq km.

The submission had been made in New York at the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in the presence of Maamaatuaiahutapu.

Obligations to indigenous
In 2019, a lawyer of the group Blue Ocean Law Julian Aguon said that while France had designs to exploit seabed resources it also had fiduciary obligations as by law the indigenous people had permanent sovereignty over natural resources.

He said France was a party to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which were binding treaties.

Aguon said a precedent was set by the International Court of Justice when it ruled in favour of Nauru which challenged Australia for breaching trusteeship obligations over phosphate mining.

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