Plastic Battle in the Pacific: Is it too late to win the bin war?

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There’s no time like the present to reduce consumption of plastics, and at minimum reuse and recycle. In the Pacific, we are facing questions on what to do with our own rubbish and imports that continue to float onto our shores. Recent reporting about the well-known “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” estimates that there are more than 78,000 tonnes of plastic in an area of about 1.6 square kilometers. The rubbish patch has grown substantially, helped by extreme events like the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

This year, for better or for worse, certain trends are creating a momentum of impact on the plastic landscape. At the national level, some governments are refusing to take notice. Leaving recycling up to the market and local level to regulate has meant inconsistencies in costs and infrastructure across districts and states and impeded an effective national movement in many countries.

In addition to what is floating in the ocean, plastic and other recycling is piling up on land in Australia, the United Kingdom, Samoa, the European Union, and elsewhere as China’s restriction on imports of waste takes effect. According to the ABC, the ban will impact about 619,000 tonnes of materials worth $523 million in Australia alone.

But, when one recycling bin closes, sometimes, another one opens. This presents an opportunity to transform the industry and societal behaviours, take leadership, and call out harmful practices.

We’ve heard positive news from industry recently, who noticed rubbish piling up in the Pacific. Rather than leaving the Pacific islands with empty shipping containers after unloading exports, China Navigation wants to pick up rubbish and recyclable materials for free. It is still figuring out where and how to process the recyclables. Pacific Recycles in Samoa is the only major recycling operation in the Pacific islands, and is aiming to improve quality of materials so that New Zealand or other countries will accept the rubbish.

Unsurprisingly, Pacific island leaders are acting. Governments of Vanuatu, Palau, Marshall Islands, and American Samoa have signed on to banning single-use plastic bags. Some have also adopted levies on bags or bottles. In New Zealand, a petition to ban plastic bags was accepted at Parliament in February.

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In Australia, waste industry and environmental advocates are calling on the government to take action on regulations to encourage a circular economy or ensure purchasing of recycled products in government procurement. The federal government has signaled it is an issue for state and local governments; so for now at the lowest levels, local governments like the Hornsby Shire Council in the Sydney suburbs have it on their agenda to find new solutions for recycling and to consume less plastics.

While China has framed the ban on imports of recycling as a way to improve its environment, it could lead to an increase in new production of the same plastics. China’s demand for some plastics, particularly polyethylene, are forecast to rise to make up for the loss of recycled plastic.  Producers, then, should take more responsibility for managing the environmental impact of the full lifecycle of their products. Consumers can also refuse to create demand for certain plastics, recycle, and utilise the local resources available to understand lifestyle habits.

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Clean beaches don’t necessarily mean a clean ocean. Manly Beach, Australia.

It seems no beach or stream is free from pollution, but there are plenty of groups and individuals working to fix that. For example, the organisation Clean Up Australia has more than 7,000 registered clean up sites, empowering local communities with tools, networking, and knowledge. We know that commercial fishing gear make up a significant portion of ocean rubbish and have their own harmful impact on wildlife; recycling nets and other gear has turned into an effective business for more more than a few startups, converting them into carpets and other consumer products.  Bringing government, industry, and community groups together is essential to not only creating projects like those funded by the Australian Packaging Covenant but also to understanding global needs and expanding possibilities.

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Blue Diplomacy: Interpreting the New Ross Sea Marine Protected Area

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Antarctica. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, becoming the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the continent. His visit will bring international attention to the new Ross Sea Marine Protected Area (MPA) and showcase the Obama Administration’s commitment to conservation and acting on climate change. But, if Antarctica is already ‘protected’ by the Antarctic Treaty System and Madrid Protocol, why did 24 countries and the European Union need to sign onto the world’s largest new MPA? Taking a deeper dive into the issues surrounding MPAs, the Antarctic Treaty System and contemporary ocean policy leads us to understand that the Ross Sea MPA is a sign of a changing narrative in conservation where ocean health is linked to climate change.

In his book The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans, John Hannigan provides a timely interpretation of the changing discourse of oceans; from a place for ‘frontier’ activities to a place for ‘saving.’ In between, we’ve fought for sovereignty claims and worked on best ways to ‘Govern the Abyss.’ We can see several of these discourse changes in the management of Antarctica specifically.

At the height of the Cold War in 1959, the international community agreed to set aside an entire continent for scientific exploration, banning military activity including nuclear weapons. There are 53 parties to the Antarctic Treaty System, which also halted all new sovereignty claims on the frozen continent. This would prohibit any new bases by emerging countries and maintain existing power structures. In a sign of the discourse around oceans management and conservation, the original Antarctic Treaty System included land and ice shelves but not all of the surrounding waters.

In 1991, the Antarctic Treaty System was updated with the Madrid Protocol, which sought to limit adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment by designating it as a  “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” Importantly, it showcased that resource extraction was important issue at the time and prohibited mining; a later addition to the protocol prevented marine pollution and provided provisions for waste management.

Finalized in Australia in October 2016, the Ross Sea MPA has created the world’s largest marine reserve and will enter into force in 2017. The agreement designates 72 percent of the MPA to be ‘no-take’ and only some sections will allow harvesting of tooth-fish and krill for scientific research for the next 35 years. The Ross Sea is home to almost 40 percent of the world’s Adelie penguins, 30 percent of Antarctic petrels and a huge amount of krill which animals like seals and whales rely on for nutrients (and even humans). The agreement was first introduced by the United States and New Zealand in 2011, and they will also negotiate details of implementation including monitoring and assessment plans. Therefore it will be critical for a positive bilateral working relationship to continue.

The Ross Sea MPA is another example for the changing discourse in oceans management, from working on effectively governing territories to harnessing power from multiple groups (from government leaders to nonprofits to celebrities) in order to save and protect oceans no matter how distant from our everyday lives. According to John Kerry, 2016 has been a “landmark year for ocean stewardship” particularly when the Ross Sea MPA’s 1.57m square kilometers is combined with the nearly 4m square kilometers of newly protected ocean area announced at the Our Ocean Conference in September.

The Ross Sea MPA is not controversial and has several benefits for the U.S. First, for areas that are not threatened but are protected, MPAs brings significant scientific value to have a pristine ocean environment available. Second, it is a political opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to environmental principles and contribute to an administration’s legacy. When there are no threats to powerful political or commercial interests, MPAs are more likely to have bipartisan support. Third, it improves the soft power particularly of the U.S. where climate initiatives or environmental protections in the past have been weak.

The Ross Sea MPA is also important because it may set a precedent for high seas MPAs to be negotiated. According to Hannigan (2016), we are now in a discourse of “Saving the Ocean” whereby the primary actors oppose exploitation of ocean resources in favor of full protection; preferably protection is pursued through “zoning the oceans, specifically the establishment of marine reserves and other marine protected areas” (133). Nonprofit and industry groups, marine scientists and government leaders like Palau President Tommy Remengesau have called for 20 percent of the ocean to be protected.

While I agree with marine protected areas and have written about their importance, expanding upon the square kilometers of protected areas for their own sake or simply demonstrating international harmony is not sufficient for creating what is needed, a behavioral shift among consumers or international supply chains. The momentum must continue through bipartisan and multi-stakeholder efforts with work to educate the public about what they can do in their own communities.

I was fortunate to be able to visit Antarctica in 2005 as part of an educational trip with young students and researchers. Albatrosses and other sea birds soared past our ship as we cut through what seemed an endless bounty of icebergs and sea ice. I saw what most people only see on television – killer whales hunting a seal trying to escape capture on a lone ice flow. Once on land, I scooted among the penguins’ trails and visited Halley Research Station run by Great Britain in the Weddell Sea. A sign that not everyone can or should visit the pristine environment, our icebreaker ship rescued a large tourist cruise ship stuck in the ice. I experienced firsthand the serenity and silence of Antarctica and its inability to advocate for itself.  

Ocean conservation is now a welcome part of the discourse on global climate change, part of what I’d like to call Blue Diplomacy. In a 2014 letter to President Obama, the Marine Conservation Institute said “the unprotected ocean is like a debit account where everybody withdraws and nobody deposits. By contrast, marine reserves are like savings accounts that produce interest we can live off of.” (Hannigan 2016, 128) In the absence of the strongest binding commitments and complimentary to the Paris Climate Accord, the Ross Sea MPA provides a relatively easy ‘win’ for scientists and government leaders alike. It is a signal that despite escalating competition for Asia-Pacific territory resources harkening back frontier days, international actors are awakening to the climate-ocean nexus and the interconnectedness of healthy fish stocks and reefs with a healthy climate.  

Asia-Pacific Profile: Susi Pudjiastuti

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Susi Pudjiastuti, Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Indonesia at the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

Who is she?

Susi Pudjiastuti has been the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries in Indonesia since 2014. She is known for her strong personality and tough stance on illegal fishing. Prior to being appointed as Minister, Ms. Susi had seafood export and charter airline (Susi Air) businesses where she gained notoriety and amassed a fortune, despite being a high school dropout.

Why is she in the news?

On September 19, the World Wildlife Foundation presented Minister Susi with their Leaders for a Living Planet Award, recognizing her as a “champion for the oceans.” Minister Susi was recently in Washington, DC to participate in the Our Ocean Conference hosted by the U.S. Department of State, September 15-16. She announced that Bali, Indonesia will host the conference in 2018.

Minister Susi has shepherded the Jokowi government’s policy of destroying foreign boats illegal fishing in Indonesian waters. According to Minister Susi, at any given time, Indonesia has 15-25,000 illegal fishing vessels in its waters. Since 2014, the government has destroyed more than 220 boats, with some incidents captured and presented online. At the Our Ocean Conference, she described the policy as stemming from Indonesia’s experiences curbing drug smuggling.But it is also a way to tackle corruption in politics and business.

How does her work impact Indonesia in the Asia-Pacific?

Stemming illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a top priority for many governments and organizations, as demonstrated at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference. Additionally, actions are being taken to mitigate ocean acidification and create marine protected areas. Representatives announced commitments of at least 136 new initiatives on marine conservation and protection valued at more than $5.24 billion, and new commitments on the protection of almost four million square kilometers (over 1.5 million square miles) of the ocean.

Illegal fishing is estimated to cost Indonesia $3 billion per year. It is no surprise then that Indonesia supports the Safe Ocean Network and is party to the Port State Measures Agreement. As a global initiative seeking to “combating all aspects of the fight against illegal fishing, including detection, enforcement, and prosecution,” the Safe Ocean Network ‎includes 46 governments and organizations and more than 40 projects worth over $82 million over 5 years. The Safe Ocean Network aims to “strengthen monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) efforts through the integration of existing and emerging technologies, expanded use of internet-based tools, enhanced coordination and information sharing, and capacity building.”

What is her impact on U.S.-Indonesia relations?

At the 2016 Our Ocean Conference and at other venues in September, the United States announced new measures to protect the ocean, stem pollution and support sustainable fisheries.To inform its policymaking, the U.S. government intelligence community produced its “first ever unclassified assessment on the drivers and global implications of IUU fishing.” The U.S. is influenced by its allies in the Asia-Pacific who face threats from IUU fishing which impact their economy, security and society.

In particular for Indonesia, among other commitments, the U.S. is providing Port State Measures Agreement implementation training for officials and managers and will aid with curriculum development and training for officials in the country’s major ports.

Why Marine Protected Areas Matter

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Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, Oregon, U.S. source: Flikr

On August 26, 2016, the Obama Administration announced the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument northwest of Hawaii from 360,000 to 1.5 million sq km. It is the largest no-take marine protected area (MPA) and the largest protected area in the world, land or sea. Coming at the end of the administration, the executive order demonstrates President Obama’s desire to have conservation as part of his legacy. More importantly, it is a reminder to the American public that its government must take measured steps to protect against the changing climate and support sustainable fisheries.

MPAs are not new, and are an important tool in government policy for conservation and fisheries management. In the U.S., they include a variety of environments, including open ocean, intertidal zones, estuaries, coastal areas and the Great Lakes. Many U.S. MPAs are mixed use, but some are no-take, which prohibit commercial and recreational extraction to enable ultimate protection for marine ecosystems. MPAs protect all types of habitats, plants and animals within U.S. waters, and even includes protection of shipwrecks or other cultural resources.

The purpose, management and legal authorities of MPAs also varies in the U.S. In 2000, President George Bush issued Executive Order 13158 which supported a comprehensive system of MPAs and established the MPA Center; yet it did not contain a mandate to override federal or state regulations or procedures. President Bush also originally designated the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006, and as well as the Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments in January 2009. Overall, in the U.S., the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce oversees a majority (97%) of MPAs.

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The National Marine Protected Areas Center maintains a Classification System which functionally describes MPAs using five characteristics common to MPAs: conservation focus, level of protection, permanence of protection, constancy of protection and scale of protection. These areas of classification dictate the purpose of establishing an MPA, “what it is intended to protect, how it achieves that protection, and how it may affect local ecosystems and local human uses.”

According to NOAA, the U.S. has more than 1200 MPAs which cover 26% (3.2 million sq km) of U.S. waters. No-take MPAs cover about half of that area, or 13% (1.5 million sq km). In comparison, about 14% of land in the U.S. is protected, and U.S. waters are 1.4 times greater than the country’s land area (12 million sq km).

There are no federal mandates to set aside a specific percentage of the U.S. marine environment for protection, but some proponents of conservation believe there should be targets. In a recent statement, President Obama acknowledged that Pacific islands are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change with rising sea levels and rising temperatures. At the IUCN World Congress, Palau President Remengesau announced his desire for 30 percent of global waters to be protected (currently only 2 percent is protected). In Palau, 80 percent of its maritime territory has been designated a sanctuary to stem the effects of overfishing. With the State Department-led Our Ocean conference upcoming, this issue of global expansion of marine protection should stay on the agenda.

In part because they can be designated or classified in different ways (i.e. some areas can be more protected than others), MPAs are not controversial and receive bipartisan support. Importantly, they also require minimal effort from the American public; they do not require modification of the majority’s everyday lifestyles, but their complicity shows in a way that Americans care for the environment.

Marine protected areas will experience the same impacts from climate change as the wider ocean and coastal areas; but the intention is to create a pristine and protected laboratory to learn from these changes as well as to regenerate marine populations decimated by overfishing, IUU fishing, and bycatch. Protection from commercial and in some cases recreational fishing creates a space where coral and fish alike can take refuge. Ocean acidification continues to threaten species, especially coral reefs, and MPAs are intended to support ocean resilience. Scientists plan to monitor the fragile environment, and hope that by expanding the monument, it will also help nearby ecosystems to adapt.

Asia-Pacific Profile: Myint Swe

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Photo credit: Taro Taylor; Creative Commons

 

Who is Myint Swe?

Born June 24, 1961, Myint Swe is a retired general and one of two newly-inaugurated Vice Presidents of Myanmar. His resume includes posts as the head of the military security department in the previous government (intelligence body) and more recently the chief minister of the Yangon region. In 2012, he was nominated to replace a Vice President who was against reforms, but was never confirmed for reasons that are disputed .

Why is he a newsmaker?

On March 30, Myanmar’s new civilian president, Htin Kyaw was sworn in along with his two Vice Presidents and 18 Cabinet Ministers, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Myint is in the news particularly because he is also a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe. He took part in the crackdown of student protests last year and Buddhist monks in 2007. After his nomination was announced this month, social media websites became sites of significant criticism, citing the military’s continued influence over the country.

Because he has a son-in-law with Australian citizenship, there were questions originally surrounding his eligibility for the role. The constitution, written by the military, bans top government officials who have foreign relatives.

How does Myint Swe’s position impact Myanmar’s new government?

The military is still heavily entrenched in Myanmar’s political and economic systems. While the Parliament is dominated by Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the military has a right to nominate a Vice President. The military maintains sufficient veto power as it is also guaranteed three ministries (Border Affairs, Home and Defense) and control a quarter of parliamentary seats.

New President Htin Kyaw, hand-picked by Suu Kyi, will lead Myanmar’s first civilian government after 54 years of military rule. Suu Kyi will meanwhile take on important portfolios in the ministries of education, foreign affairs, electric power and energy and the president’s office. Land confiscation, national reconciliation and a transition to a more open economy are just a few issues that the new government aims to tackle. The public has welcomed new government with open arms, and has high hopes for its civilian leadership. Leaders affiliated with the previous regime will have to adapt if the country is to move forward economically and politically.

How does Myint Swe impact US policy toward Myanmar?

The U.S. Government has welcomed reforms to Myanmar’s political and economic systems. Yet as a feature of the old regime, Myint Swe remains on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist that prevents U.S. companies from doing business with certain businessmen and senior military figures. The military’s grip on power also still enables its control over release of political prisoners, a critical issue for relations with the U.S. to improve. At this stage, the U.S. State Department has not appeared to indicate whether Myint Swe’s role in the government would affect diplomatic relations.

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.

Contestations of Memory: Comfort Women and East Asian Politics

“To ignore violative conduct is to invite its repetition and sustain a culture of impunity.”[1]

If survivors from a tragic event do not step forward to share their experiences, how will historians and the public know the truth about what happened? A lack of personal testimonials may invite suppression of memory or rewriting of history. It took nearly fifty years for women who survived the Pacific War ‘comfort stations’ of the Japanese military to reveal their maltreatment and forced experiences as ‘comfort women.’ As opposed to redress initiated by the state, a shift in academia from the 1980s led by several female academic researchers helped open a space for survivors to bring grievances against the Japanese state for crimes against humanity (including rape and sexual slavery) and South Korean state for support. Japan and Korea’s sanitization of their official histories of the Pacific War, denial of evidence of Japan’s state coordination of enslaving comfort women and stigmatization of former comfort women amounted to a re-interpretation of history and denial of the women’s memory; with the atomic bombing of Japan and the desire for the US to have a strong non-communist ally in the region after the war, Japan was able to shed its image as an aggressor relatively quickly and in its textbooks told the story of the Pacific War through its prism as a victim. The history of comfort women, and particularly the responsibility of the Japanese state, is still disputed; this debate has led to a damaging divide between experiencers and mythologizers of history.

In discussing the history of ‘comfort women,’ there are multiple angles from which to approach their experiences as well as the constructed memory in the ‘official histories’ of Japan and South Korea. Christine Chinkin (2001) in “Women’s International Tribunal of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery” addresses the importance of tribunals–official and unofficial–and community involvement so that states cannot “ignore or forgive crimes against humanity.”[2] Chunghee Sarah Soh (1996) in “The Korean ‘Comfort Women’: Movement for Redress” focuses on the inability of former comfort women to reconcile their past due in part to cultural legacies and the institutionalization of sexual slavery based on class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality; although, changes in national and international structures since the Cold War have helped translate the problem into a universal women’s issue. Shuko Ogawa’s (2000) “The Difficulty of Apology: Japan’s Struggle with Memory and Guilt” and Bonnie B.C. Oh’s (2001) chapter “The Japanese Imperial System and the Korean Comfort Women of WWII” attempt to explain the Japanese state’s perspective. Oh accepts the uniqueness of Japan’s situation while finding underlying cultural issues that impacted the role of the government; Ogawa advocates the importance of Japan coming clean on its history of comfort women in order to save face. In “History & Memory: Comfort Women Controversy” Hyun Sook Kim (1997) compares official Japanese and South Korean textbooks with testimonials of survivors and similarly identifies cultural reasons for both states to selectively ignore, repress and sanitize experiences of comfort women. This contestation of memory entails mythmaking and a division between official narrative of ‘lack of evidence’ and narratives of testimonials from those that experienced history.

By reiterating tales of female exploitation, historical roles of Japanese and Korean governments, and the states’ claim of a ‘lack of evidence’ these texts elucidate the difficulties that former comfort women, as those that ‘experienced the history’ have faced in reconciling their past and attempting to educate future generations. Because of the official treatment of their history the women feel as if the mythologizers of the past (i.e. Japanese government) are “uninterested in knowing the past as its makers have experienced it.”[3] Women have been unable or unwilling to tell their experienced history because of the stigmatization within the families, communities and society, particularly in Korea, from the time of their return. A government study in 1993 led to the Kono statement where Japan officially recognized its role in establishing comfort stations, coercing women into sex with the military; however, controversy still ensued as the government claimed reparations should be made through private rather than public funds meaning the state would not pay for–and so would remain separate from–the harm it caused. Moreover, the states’ alternative histories are positioned from different historical data; survivor testimonials have become “reified as ‘information’ and ‘data,’ and they are treated as hard facts and the truth about the past – ‘facts’ that must be verified.”[4] According to Kim, for decades personal narratives have been withheld or ignored due to “patriarchal and national cultural arrangements.”[5] Oh meanwhile explains that comfort women were seen as “gifts from the Emperor,” pointing to the underlying issue of “contempt with which women have been held in Japanese society and exploitation of their sexuality.”[6] Decades on, financial compensation has been sought (and some achieved), but more than that is the desire for Japan to accede full responsibility for their terrible experiences; from this full apology the women seek acceptance from communities and the state to prevent this situation from occurring again.

At different points the governments of Japan and South Korea modified their positions on comfort women yet internal and external cultural and political factors led them to maintain control on history. But what did the states have to gain from their (mis)treatment of these women? Initially the Korean government ignored issues of the ‘Chongsindae’ women; there was a “lack of documentary evidence” because Japan destroyed records, and the 1965 Normalization Treaty “foreclosed the Korean government from making any further claims for reparations for damages incurred during the colonial period.”[7] Soh indicates that the state’s treatment of the plight of comfort women fits with South Korea’s tradition of sexual and physical exploitation of women for tourism and labor industries. Both cultures maintain a reverence for ancestors which enables construction of memory; in Japan specifically, “ideological wars have been fought over the wording of history textbooks, commemoration of the war dead, and personal compensation demands from foreigners” victimized by the Japanese.[8] Conservatives in Japan then do not want to teach a history which they believe will prevent students from retaining pride in their country.

While Japan eventually admitted that comfort women were coerced and recognized that “it had violated international humanitarian laws by persecuting Korean women,”[9] this contestation of memory is far from reconciled. Disputes over compensation to victims have put pressure on Japan-Korea relations, while “ethno-nationalistic sentiments have given rise to a renewed sense of historically rooted mutual hostility and contempt.”[10] Korean and Japanese heads of state have prioritized and publicized the dispute over memory of the comfort women at different levels. Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently stated he would accept the 1993 Kono Statement while still enabling a review on how the apology was constructed.[11] Critics such as Ogawa claim that Japan will not be able to gain full acceptance in international institutions until it recognizes its past injustices with comfort women, who have been unable to receive closure with their past.

Contemporary politics reinforces Japan’s mythologization of its Pacific War experiences as a victim rather than the aggressor.  Recent high-level, bilateral summits between South Korea and Japan discussing security, development and now potentially the comfort women issue are a positive sign and represent a significant diplomatic concession by Japan. Events such as the fallout from Trans-Pacific Partnership discussions and the North Korea program have added to US concern over the behavior of its allies and its inability to control actors in the Asia-Pacific. Japan’s historical hesitation to confront nationalist tendencies has negatively impacted relationships with its neighbors and more importantly, has marginalized memories that can instill humility and prevent the event’s repetition.

[1] Chinkin, Christine. “Women’s International Tribunal of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery.” The American Journal of International Law. 95.2. April (2001).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cohen, Paul A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), xiv.

[4] Kim, Hyun Sook. “History & Memory: Comfort Women Controversy.” Positions. 5:1. Spring (1997): 95.

[5] Ibid, 101.

[6] Oh, Bonnie B.C. “The Japanese Imperial System and the Korean Comfort Women of WW2” In Legacies of the Comfort Women. Edited by Margaret Stetz and Bonnie B.C. Oh. (New York: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 2001), 5, 9.

[7] Soh, Chunghee Sarah. “The Korean ‘Comfort Women’: Movement for Redress.” Asian Survey. Vol. 36, No. 12, Dec. (1996): 1230. 

[8] Ogawa, Shuko. “The Difficulty of Apology: Japan’s Struggle with Memory and Guilt.” Harvard International Review. Fall (2000).

[9] Soh, “The Korean ‘Comfort Women,’” 1236.

[10] Ibid, 1239.

[11] Akihiko Kaise. “Abe Administration Maintains Delicate Balancing Act over Kono Statement.” The Asahi Shimbun. (3/15/14) [http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201403150044]