Top 5 Stories to Follow in the South Pacific in 2016

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Auckland, New Zealand, where the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be signed. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

 

  1. National Elections

This year, there will be national elections in Australia, Kiribati, Nauru and Samoa. Australia’s relatively new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be tested at the polls, and we are yet to see whether the public concentrates on the candidate’s personality or international issues, specifically, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and immigration. Pacific island voters face local issues like storm recovery, welfare and some big personalities of their own.

On January 22, Vanuatu held snap elections because 14 Members of Parliament, including the Prime Minister, were involved in a corruption scandal last year. Kiribati goes to the polls on January 30 to replace President Anote Tong (due to term limits), who has been at the forefront of international advocacy for action on climate change. Next, Samoa will hold elections on March 4, with Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele a “reasonable bet” given that he has held office since 1998. Last year, Nauru was plagued by concerns over its rule of law; because of this its leaders have asked for support from the Commonwealth Secretary when the country holds elections in June. Elections in Australia are not yet scheduled, but should take place before the year is over. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was ousted in September 2015 and replaced by Malcolm Turnbull; the new leader is seen as more open to debate than Abbott, who is contesting his Parliamentary seat again this cycle. Locally, Australia’s Northern Territories will vote in August to determine whether the government can lease the port of Darwin to Chinese company Landbridge.

Bonus: NZ Binding Flag Referendum

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is behind the referendum to change the national flag. Critics call the move a vanity project in legacy building, in the absence of meaningful debates about New Zealand culture, Maori rights, or becoming a republic. In shocking news to many, late entry and hipster crowd favorite Red Peak did not make the final vote. There will be a binding referendum between March 3-24 requiring voters to select between the current flag or a silver fern design by Kyle Lockwood. Voters in Auckland confused about which design to select will get a demonstration on the Auckland harbor bridge.

  1. West Papua

The separatist movement in West Papua is as alive as ever, and human rights abuses committed by Indonesian forces have reportedly increased under the Jokowi government. In an address at the United Nations General Assembly in October 2015, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to step up monitoring and investigating efforts for human rights abuse and violations in Papua and West Papua. In November, Human Rights Watch published a 73-page report condemning the government of Indonesia for the lack of access for foreign journalists in the region. Meanwhile, in December, the Indonesian government warned other countries to respect its sovereignty and reportedly ordered international NGOs to close their offices in Papua. Much of the wealth from the resource-rich province goes to Jakarta, leaving West Papuans relatively poor.

There seemed to be a small amount of traction in the case for peace. Having spent the last 10 years in prison, West Papuan separatist leader Filep Karma was released from prison five years early. Yet, on the same day that Indonesian and Australian defense ministers met to declare closer ties, a young West Papuan was shot by the military while protesting a palm oil company. Pacific Islands Forum may be a platform for intervention, particularly when it releases information about its “fact finding mission” agreed to at the last Leaders Summit.

  1. Pacific Fisheries

Overfishing has been a significant problem for the Pacific Island region, leading to competition for depleted fish stocks. Ineffective international management of the Pacific tuna supply, strong consumer demand and weak monitoring of vessels have led to overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and bycatch. And, in some cases, operators of IUU fishing vessels disregard basic labor standards.  Illegal fishing cannot be solved unilaterally; Pacific Island Countries will need support from their island neighbors, larger international actors like the United States, Indonesia, Japan and Australia, as well as support from non-government groups.

Marine sanctuaries are one option for island states to protect local fisheries and recover populations lost due to overfishing.  In October 2015, Palau created one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries that covers 80 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). You can read my article focusing on Palau for the Islands Society here. Palau lacks the enforcement ships to ensure its sanctuary is protected. In addition, the United States government has reneged on a fishing agreement with Pacific island nations which will leave them in a budget shortfall. Island states like Palau hope to replace declining income with an increase in tourism by wealthy travelers and will need international support to maintain sovereignty over its fisheries.

Among other groups, the Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency is responsible for coordinating these efforts, and should be more vocal internationally this year.

  1. Trade Agreements

The signing ceremony for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is scheduled for February 4, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand. Meanwhile, the fate of the agreement is still uncertain. Protesters in Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the United States among others continue to demonstrate their displeasure for the 12-nation pact. As Canada’s government recently made clear, “signing does not equal ratifying.” In fact, ratification could take up to 2 years. Even in the United States, passage of the agreement through Congress is anything but certain; in an address in Washington, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lobbied the American Congress on the agreement. But what does the TPP mean for the Pacific? Australia and New Zealand are the only South Pacific countries party to the agreement, yet the agreement allows other states to join in the future.

The Pacific is currently negotiating its own free trade agreement, Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, or PACER-Plus, which focuses on removing tariffs and duties. Last September, PIF leaders agreed that they wanted negotiations for PACER-Plus to conclude by mid-2016, yet cohesive political leadership is lacking. Fiji and Papua New Guinea have warned about the potential inability to regulate and protect specific industries; PNG believes it will hurt its manufacturing sector. Additionally, non-government groups have questioned the ability of the agreement to produce significant benefits for island countries under its current status; while it enables Australian and New Zealand access to Pacific countries, it may not similarly provide support mechanisms for local producers to get their goods to the market.

As larger island countries and regional leaders, Fiji and PNG may have too much to lose if they walk out on PACER-Plus, much the way some states feel that have already agreed to the TPP. As these processes unfold, Pacific states will be watching how the TPP impacts smaller and less diverse economies.  

  1. Climate Change Leadership

Since 1992, sea levels have risen nearly 8cm according to Nasa, and the Pacific has experienced a faster increase than other areas.  The plight of Pacific Island states has been well-documented by The Guardian and Pulitzer Center. Maintaining international commitment, funding and access to funding for climate change will be critical to adaptation and mitigation efforts. Kiribati President Anote Tong has reiterated that climate negotiations are not a game but “a matter of survival.” In part because of the persistence by Pacific island leaders, the latest UN climate agreement in Paris set a target of 1.5 degrees Celsius as opposed to the 2C limit preferred by industrialized states.

For 2016, the Pacific will need to continue to speak with a unified voice. Kiribati President Tong and Palau President Tommy Remengesau have led advocacy efforts, and increasingly Fiji under President Frank Bainimarama is making its voice more prominent. The Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF) hosted by Fiji is now an observer in the United Nations; leaders have used the PIDF to caucus because it excludes Australia and New Zealand. The group came together for the 2015 Suva Declaration on Climate Change because, according to Bainimarama, “We in the Pacific tend to speak softly. It is in our nature. But on this issue, we needed to cry out with one voice, enough is enough. And we have. And it is all the more powerful for that.”

In June 2017, Fiji will host the United Nations Conference on Oceans and Seas. Throughout the year, but particularly in the lead up to regional and global meetings, look for Fiji to take an aggressive advocacy position.

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