A Tale of Two Islands

Matthew and Hunter, two small uninhabited islands between New Caledonia and Vanuatu, are subjects of a territorial dispute between Vanuatu and France. Discovered in the late 18th century, these islands were largely forgotten until 1962, when two New Hebrides expatriates tried to claim them by means of a legal action before the Joint Court in Port Vila. This attracted the interest of French Condominium officials, who tried to send a warship to Matthew to claim the island for France. The party was unable to land, due to high seas, but later one of the expats managed to swim ashore and plant a coconut tree to validate his own claim.

In 1965, the French announced that the British government had agreed that the islands could be attached to New Caledonia, despite the fact that they had always appeared on the map of New Hebrides and been considered a part of that colony. In 1975, the French did manage to get ashore and erect plaques, but their claims were not recognized by the incoming Vanuatu government, which had the Vanuatu flag raised and sovereignty proclaimed shortly after Independence Day 1980.

The two islands are still claimed by both countries, and although of little practical value in themselves, they would form an important addition to the Exclusive Economic Zone of either Vanuatu or New Caledonia. Currently the Forum Fisheries Agency recognizes Vanuatu's claim for fisheries licensing purposes.

Geographically, Vanuatu's claim seems much stronger. Matthew and Hunter form the southern tip of the Y-shaped chain which makes up Vanuatu and the 7,570-meter-deep New Hebrides Trench separates this chain from New Caledonia. Continental shelves are a key factor in determining sovereignty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, making Vanuatu's claim almost self-evident. Colonialism backed up by military might is the only basis of France's claim.

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