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.

Leading at the Margins: Palau’s Role in the 2014 Pacific Island Forum

This year states are being asked to take action on sustainable energy projects “irrespective of political status.” As host of this year’s 45th Pacific Islands Forum from July 29 to August 1, leaders of the Republic of Palau are doing their part to call global attention to the plight of Pacific islands. Palau’s efforts coincide with the United Nations designation of 2014 as the ‘Year of the Small Island Developing States’. Palau’s culture of conservation and preservation has helped the state to become a leader in climate adaptation and a formidable partner in pursuing multilateral solutions to migration challenges.

Now is the time to connect conservation with development. Nonprofits, government and the private sector are working together through the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) in an attempt to build resilient and sustainable island communities. Leaders of small island states like President Tommy Remengesau of Palau seek to reverse the trend of increasing spending on defense budgets and instead spend more on conservation, and peaceful relationship-building efforts. Through GLISPA, actors are trying to find “island solutions to island challenges” because “nature forms part of [their] economy.” At a GLISPA meeting earlier this year, Palau’s Ambassador to the United States Hersey Kyota quipped that the country has an informal motto to “take enough for yourself, leave some for others.” Over time, traditional concepts of conservation have changed with technology, enabling people to store more and for companies to produce more than they need to live sustainably.

President Remengesau is expecting at least 500 people to attend the Pacific Island Forum this year, including heads of state. During his recent visit to Japan, Remengesau extended an invitation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend the forum in the wake of Japan’s increasing development projects in the region. Japan continues to add to its Aid-for-Trade programs including a new agreement in June with the Kingdom of Tonga which will help the state to purchase goods from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami-damaged region. To counter China’s diplomatic and economic efforts and as part of the ‘rebalance,’ the United States has notably increased its presence at PIF meetings since Secretary Clinton’s visit to the Cook Islands in 2012; last year the US sent Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell along with a delegation also representing Departments of State, Homeland Security, Energy, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and US Pacific Command. In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key may not attend due to upcoming elections in September; but, NZ recently created a new position and appointed former Labour Member of Parliament Shane Jones as Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, to help coordinate and boost the country’s relationships, development programs and fisheries projects.

More important than the number of attendees is the commitments that can be made and followed through by larger states, and the impact a cohesive Pacific group of nations can have on swaying the international community to not only change their behaviors but help . At last year’s PIF meeting in the Solomon Islands, members signed the Majuro Declaration and made specific commitments, hoping to launch a “new wave of climate leadership.” So far it seems Australia has been the only state to move away from its commitments, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott holding the country’s plans hostage; Australia previously agreed to have 20% of its electricity generated from renewables by 2020 as well as its pursuit of emissions reductions targets. Small island states meanwhile created ambitious targets to transform their economies: Niue and the Cook Islands aim to generate 100% of their energy from renewables by 2020, Vanuatu seeks 65% by 2020, and Nauru and Solomon Islands have targets of 50% renewable energy generation by 2020 and 2015, respectively.

Emissions reductions are a more delicate political issue than changing sources of energy for both large and small states because of the economic implications for heavy polluting industries in particular and businesses in general; in the Pacific though, according to Kyota, the tension surrounding who is to blame for high emissions levels inducing climate change becomes old news when states must deal with the consequences including ocean acidification, overfishing and rising sea levels. Kiribati for example is facing certain sea level rise that will make its islands uninhabitable, and the government is investigating options for mass migration.

Palau has to evolve with “climate mitigation,” according to Ambassador Kyota, due to “things that were not caused by us.” Palau has a population of about 20,000 people, and is currently facing prospects of severe drought this year due to El Nino weather patterns. Multilateral cooperation will be critical to changing the rhetoric and discourse of climate adaptation and mitigation, and should aim to prevent free-riding. In opposition to Tony Abbott’s complaints about economic impacts of carbon pricing and other climate-related regulations, Kiribati’s President Anote Tong said “We’re not talking about the growth GDP, we’re not talking about what it means in terms of profit and losses of the large corporations, we’re talking about our survival.”  For Kiribati, “our future is already here … we will be underwater.” President Tong recently announced that Kiribati would prohibit commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which is about the size of the state of California. President Remengesau has also recently called for a total ban on commercial fishing, in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which would create a sanctuary an area the size of Ukraine. Banning export-oriented commercial fishing is likely to have a larger impact on government budgets than on local fishermen and food supplies, as fishing revenues come primarily from selling permits to overseas vessels. For Kiribati, Palau and others, the short term losses will outweigh the benefits of restoring stocks of tuna for global food security and regional conservation efforts.

Thanks to Japanese investment through the Pacific Environment Community Fund, in March this year Palau installed a new solar power generation system and salt water desalination plant which exemplifies the water-energy nexus. It will reduce reliance on fossil fuels while also providing clean, safe drinking water to residents. According to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, administrator of the fund, the governments of Samoa, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Nauru, theSolomon Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Niue, Republic of Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands and Vanuatu have to date utilized the PEC Fund “for national renewable energy and seawater desalination projects.”

Many events are happening this year specifically to coincide with the Year of the Small Island Developing States, and there are positive signs that the international community is recognizing the opportunity to act to support the efforts of island states. On June 17, US President Barack Obama proposed to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in addition to other actions at the State Department-led “Our Ocean” conference; President Obama seeks to use his presidential authority if necessary but will work to create guidelines based on stakeholder input. The US, Japan and China as the world’s largest economies must continue to follow and model the efforts of the smallest states as they transform what we think of as sustainable development. As water increases in scarcity and ocean acidification intensifies in the Pacific, Australia should reverse its mistakes on climate initiatives. The PIF meeting in July hopes to continue the groundswell of action, leading to a well-prepared UN Conference on Small Island Developing States to be held in Samoa in September. At each multilateral setting, Japan, the European Union the US have continued to display their support for sustainable development initiatives, recognizing not only the pristine environment to be saved and peoples to support, but also the potential to showcase to their own publics the power of creating more areas for conservation and the need for a shift in discourse. It will be up to all actors – including Palau as leader of the PIF – to keep one another engaged in this critical year.

‘No Advantage’ Policy Creates Nightmares on Manus Island and Nauru

Manus Island Detention Center. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr
Manus Island regional processing center. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

The Australian Government’s asylum-seeker policy has gone from harsh to incomprehensible. If the center left Labor Party adopted the center right Liberal policy of offshore detention, where will policy turn if the Liberal Party wins the upcoming election? Last month on this blog I questioned Australia’s regional processing and detention center on the small island republic of Nauru; the center has caused political upheaval in a historically tumultuous political environment. This post examines the ‘no advantage’ policy and Australia’s scare tactics to avoid dealing with genuine asylum seekers.

The current asylum-seeker policy of the Gillard Labor Government is composed of recommendations from an expert panel initiated last year. The main recommendation instituted was a ‘no advantage’ policy to deter immigration. The policy provides no advantage for asylum-seekers attempting irregular entry into the country versus those who file an application for asylum in advance. Along with the reinstatement of the Pacific Solution this has led to arbitrary detentions in offshore processing sites with little impact on the number of migrants risking their lives since last August. As a result, the Australian government embarked on an audacious advertising campaign targeting potential refugees, most recently in Afghanistan. However, stemming people-smuggling and preventing irregular migration will not be solved by unilateral actions; Australia’s policies are worsening the plight of asylum-seekers, causing problems for its Pacific Island neighbors, and prohibiting meaningful discussion about why people are moving.

 The ‘no advantage’ policy has led tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to be detained with no way to provide for their families and no hope of their claim for asylum to be met. According to the policy, “There is no advantage or benefit and, indeed, there is no guarantee people who arrive by boat will ever come to Australia.” If caught in and around Australia’s territorial waters, asylum-seekers will be sent to Manus Island, Nauru or Australia’s Christmas Island.

 Just in time for World Refugee Day on June 20, there were signs that Australia would no longer send women and children to Manus Island for processing. Seventy asylum-seekers originally sent to Manus Island will be sent to Christmas Island, along with 40 family members. However, rather than promote a new, more humane policy shift, a spokesman for the immigration minister’s office said “There is no shift in government policy; families remain liable for transfer for regional processing.” This particular action of moving families is likely due to the recent international criticisms of Australia’s tactics and reports that the number of children in detention camps is at its highest level.

 The conditions within detention centers, including the slow pace of (and at times nonexistent) processing, are unfair, unnecessary and exactly what the Australian government wants. In May, the Australian television program SBS Dateline aired an investigation into the center at Manus Island. Journalist Mark Davis confirmed the rumor that because asylum-seekers fear they will be detained forever without the ability to pay debts, provide for their families, or escape the mental torture within the center, they have no hope. Asylum-seekers soon become detainees, and many are continuing to harm themselves and in some cases attempt to commit suicide.

No Advantage Policy Advertisement. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr
No Advantage Policy Advertisement. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

 To further strengthen the crude policy, the Australian government maintains targeted advertising in the countries that asylum-seekers are desperately fleeing. Recently, the government spent over $555,000 on more television and radio advertisements in Afghanistan. The advertisements focus on the financial and psychological pain of Afghanis whose relatives were caught during their journey and sent to Manus Island. As part of the International Security Assistance Force, Australia has 1,039 of its own troops in Afghanistan. It seems incomprehensible for Australia to be part of a coalition occupying a country and simultaneously advertising warnings to its people that if they attempt to flee to Australia they will likely die or be imprisoned. This discrimination against Afghan refugees is not new, however. In 2010, Australia implemented a processing freeze on asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, claiming that conditions were adequate in their own countries. The advertisements aimed at individuals and families in developing, war-torn countries accurately reflects the dire situation that refugees will face if they try to seek asylum in Australia via boat; reinforcing an image of the unjust process, though, is not only failing to achieve results but should be a source of embarrassment for Australia.

 The government of Afghanistan meanwhile claimed it was not consulted about the content of Australia’s anti-asylum-seeker advertisements. An Afghan official stated that “People will look at this ad and say this man failed, but won’t necessarily think it will happen to them.” The advertisements show a lack of engagement with Afghan communities and a lack of regard for issues faced at home by potential asylum-seekers (including those Australia’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan). If both governments were involved, the deterrence advertising could have greater legitimacy, showing the issues of asylum-seekers are serious for both governments. Instead, Australia is working almost unilaterally to deter what government officials and media have repeatedly called ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’.

 Dr. Khalid Koser predicts that the security situation in Afghanistan will deteriorate in the next two years, leading to inevitably more asylum-seekers heading to Australia by boat. Thus the ‘no advantage’ policy and even opposition leader Tony Abbott’s idea of towing boats back toward Indonesia will be unlikely to stem the flow of asylum-seekers fleeing Afghanistan. Rather, the goals should be to secure Afghanistan, support internal processes such as elections, and encourage international mechanisms for processing and taking care of asylum-seekers before they reach perilous boats.

 The severe problems in Afghanistan are, however, not the only issues leading to an increase in people seeking asylum in Australia. Over the last few years, there has been a spike in asylum-seekers traveling via boat to Australia. Already this year from January to mid-May, almost 9,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat.  Different world events including the global financial crisis, civil wars and other ‘push factors’ led to this increase. In June 2013 alone, at least 55 asylum seekers have drowned with dozens of additional people lost at sea while headed to Australia. The lack of media access to the detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island prohibits discussions about why people are traveling to Australia as well as the conditions they face upon arrival. As the statistics and harrowing stories show, people continue to flee violence and discrimination in Afghanistan, Pakistan and remain undeterred from either the hazardous journey or arbitrary detention.

 Stats

Source: Refugee Council. Phillips, J. & Spinks, H. (2013). Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976. Parliamentary Library, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BN/2012-2013/BoatArrivals

 The Labor government did not anticipate the record number of arrivals this year and underestimated the cost of maintaining detention centers. This lack of planning led to a budget increase for asylum-seekers but at the expense of other programs within the overseas development aid budget. Arbitrary detention places a financial burden on the Australian taxpayer in addition to the financial and psychological pressure on asylum-seekers (including women and children).

 Unfortunately the current policy has found support among the Australian public. Prior to the Labor Governments’ reinstitution of the Pacific Plan, in July 2012 Essential Research asked “Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum-seekers or is it taking the right approach?” Respondents indicated the following: 12% answered ‘too tough’, 11% ‘right approach’, while 60% indicated ‘too soft’. Also prior to the policy change, a United Nations Refugee Agency survey asked Australians if boat arrivals make them “more or less sympathetic” towards asylum-seekers; “32% responded ‘much less sympathetic’, only 8% ‘much more sympathetic.’” Finally, an Essential Research poll asked Australians in August 2012 if they supported the reinstitution of offshore asylum-seeker processing in PNG and Nauru; 67% supported, and 18% opposed. While much of the world is facing a prolonged recession, Australia’s economic boom has not made Australians more amenable to asylum-seekers and new immigrants. Rather, Australians have become more guarded.

 

Nauru regional processing facility. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr.
Nauru regional processing facility. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

On Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru, the national governments are trying to honor commitments they made to Australia in their management of offshore processing and detention centers. At the same time, in facilitating the ‘no advantage’ policy, the states are conflicted in their desire to ensure asylum-seekers are protected and treated adequately. Prime Minister O’Neill of PNG has stated that he wants the asylum-seekers on Manus Island to be able to help the community, work, have a normal sense of life” and be able to move around the country. On several occasions Prime Minister O’Neill claims he has promoted this idea to Australia; ultimately, it is up to Australia how asylum-seekers are managed and cared for on the offshore centers, despite how often the Australian officials claim it is up to the local governments.  

Rather than deterring irregular maritime migration to Australia, the ‘no advantage’ policy has put unfair pressure on Nauru and Papua New Guinea and promotes unreasonable treatment of asylum-seekers. As an international process and with scrutiny from the United Nations, Australia’s offshore processing and detention centers should be accessible to journalists who have already helped identify areas where bilateral and international dialogue is lacking. Since the global financial crisis in 2008 and due to increasing violence in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia, a record number of asylum-seekers continue to travel via boat toward Australia. Too many continue to drown along the way. For domestic political reasons, there is an overemphasis on the seizure and detention of people in the Asia-Pacific, with not enough regional discussion on push factors or truly regional solutions. Instead of removing protections and supporting arbitrary detention to punish them, Australia should focus on helping to protect vulnerable groups before they are forced to make the journey.

Is the Pacific Solution Australia’s Guantanamo?

With a population of less than 10,000 people and an unemployment rate near 90%, one can assume that Australia’s immigration nightmare of ‘boat people’ and revival of the Pacific Solution has come to Nauru’s rescue, giving the small island nation new life with an economic stimulus. On the contrary, Australia’s attention to Nauru and the re-installment of offshore asylum-seeker processing and detention centers is exploiting the country’s political and economic instability. Once a policy of the right-wing Howard Government, the Pacific Solution has become nonpartisan among the major parties in Australia, with opposition only remaining among a handful in Labor and minor parties such as the Green Party. Deaths of asylum-seekers by sinking ships, the ever-persistent people-smuggling business with war-torn clients and anti-immigrant sentiments among the Australian public have driven the government to an extreme policy measure that was intended to be temporary.

The Pacific Solution creates a legal gray zone in which asylum-seekers are currently deprived of recourse to Australian law and can be detained for upwards of five years. Rather than following recommendations from the United Nations to only utilize offshore facilities as a temporary measure, the Labor Government is establishing new, dangerous precedents by setting its policy of exploitation literally in concrete by building housing to hold upwards of 1,500 asylum-seekers on Nauru alone. The Supreme Court of Nauru has perhaps been the country’s saving grace, with the President and asylum-seekers both turning to the court to solve their problems.

Offshore-processing centers for asylum-seekers were part of the Pacific Solution instituted by the Liberal-National Coalition Government led by Prime Minister John Howard beginning in 2001. This policy was once strongly opposed by Australian Labor Party leaders who rejected the idea that offshore centers, and Nauru in particular, could “stop the people-smugglers’ business model.” In February 2008, the last refugees detained in Nauru under Howard’s plan were sent to Australia and the center closed; at the time, the Labor Government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the Pacific Solution  “a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a Federal election by the Howard Government.” What has changed the situation so that Labor now is unafraid of using Nauru as an offshore-processing and detention center?

One concern voiced by Labor was that Nauru had not acceded to the 1951 UN convention related to refugees and its 1967 protocols. Once Nauru took steps to become party to the convention, the opposition told current Prime Minister Julia Gillard to “swallow her pride” and “pick up the phone to Nauru” instead of making a deal with Malaysia (a state that had also not acceded to the convention).  The ‘Malaysia Solution’ and ‘East Timor Vacation’ are additional stories in themselves – and unlike Nauru those governments were more difficult to sway. 

While trying to craft Labor’s version of the Pacific Solution in 2010, Gillard advocated for using East Timor as an offshore-processing center for asylum-seekers. However, the government of East Timor eventually opposed the plan and passed a unanimous resolution rejecting the proposal. East Timor Member of Parliament Jose Teixeira illustrated the difficulties with using Pacific Island nations as Australia’s own penal colonies. Teixeira said “it’s an unfair burden to put on us as an emerging society, post-conflict, as a society that has a number of social and economic pressures on it. It’s unfair to put that additional pressure” on East Timor.

The same can be said for Nauru, a small island country that has experienced political turmoil over the last two decades. Political power struggles have not been overly violent or utilized a coup d’état, in part because Australia is responsible for Nauru’s defense (meaning Nauru does not maintain defense forces).  Nauru’s political troubles have continued this year. Parliament has not held a regular meeting since early February due to the resignation of two cabinet ministers that caused the government to lose its majority.  President Sprent Dabwido attempted for weeks to dissolve Parliament, but Speaker Godfrey Thoma and the lack of quorum in Parliament stood in his way.

In addition to defense protection, Australia provides development aid to Nauru budgeted at AUD$31.8 million for 2012/13. Opponents of the offshore center argue that at a time of shrinking government budgets, Australia cannot afford to dump funds into these new ‘development projects’ where taxpayer return will be minimal. Over the past four years, “Effective Governance” has been a top goal of development funding and currently around 60% of the total budget . While I do not doubt the overall transparency of AusAID and the commitment of development practitioners, the historically higher level of funding to governance compared to “Sustainable Economic Development” and “Promoting Opportunities for All” are a pathway for the Australian government to have demonstrable influence over Nauru’s political process; this influence allowed for the reopening of offshore-processing center and creation of a permanent mass detention center complex that has impacted the country’s political and economic outlook.

Other changes on the horizon may soon be driven by the Supreme Court in Nauru. The Supreme Court will decide both the political fate of Nauru’s government as well as the fate of asylum-seekers. With many resignations, votes of no confidence and changes of administration over the last two decades, Nauru is lucky to have a functioning Supreme Court that can help facilitate the country’s constitution. To be able to dissolve Parliament and have fresh elections, President Dabwido is considering taking legal action through the Supreme Court; this application to the Supreme Court is likely to take place over the next week. As recently as May 3, Parliament failed to reach a quorum for the fourth consecutive time, continuing to give the president reason to utilize the Supreme Court.

A landmark Supreme Court case involving asylum-seekers set for June includes an application of habeas corpus. Australian barrister Jay Williams and retired US Marine Corps lawyer Michael Mori are part of a “legal dream team formed to challenge the legality of the Nauru detention center.” Mori formerly represented Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks. The team of lawyers are representing the ten detained asylum-seekers facing charges of rioting and willful damage. Williams has been facing a challenge of his own – lack of access to the defendants to prepare an adequate case – which is an infringement of the defendants’ constitutional rights. As a constitutional challenge this ruling could have strong repercussions for Australia’s offshore-processing and detention center.

While Nauru’s government shows signs that they are unable to maintain stability, Nauru additionally lacks significant infrastructure to adequately handle the additional burden of providing for a future thousand-plus residents. The construction efforts for the detention center on Nauru attest to the longevity of the Pacific Solution and the creation of an island full of detainees similar to the US facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Underground cables have been installed for electricity, and water and sewage hook-ups have been difficult among the phosphate field. Additionally, Nauru lacks a modern port; to ship prefabricated accommodation blocks into Nauru, a “causeway of rock and gravel was constructed…and had to be repaired daily.”

While considering the damage that these events are doing to Australia’s regional and international image, the Labor government is pressing onward with development of the offshore-processing and detention center in Nauru. Currently there are more than four hundred asylum-seekers on Nauru, who have now been moved into part of the permanent detention center facilities. One journalist describes the new facilities in Nauru: “unlike the flimsy weatherboard huts used in the first iteration of the Pacific Solution under the Howard government, the new buildings are built to last.” To accommodate 1,500 detainees in a detention camp, there will be a total of ten accommodation blocks costing the Australian government more than AUD$70 million to construct. According to a report, the “initial stage of the project is a twin-storey accommodation centre of about 1000sq m, containing 44 rooms grouped in three pods, connected by covered breezeways. For now, asylum-seekers will sleep two to a room of 4m x 3.5m.”  These new facilities were likely built in response to criticism from the international community and nongovernmental organizations about poor conditions being faced by refugees as well as the impact on local communities.

In December 2012, observers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a scathing report on the facilities and processing operations at Nauru. UNHCR representatives expressed the “need for more information and clarity for asylum-seekers about their situation, and counseling on the procedures and time frames of various steps in line with international standards.” The report also stressed that asylum-seekers should be supplied with “adequate conditions of accommodation, and the legal framework, rules and procedures for processing of transferred asylum-seekers in Nauru should be completed as a matter of urgency.” Having risked their lives on a treacherous journey by boat, asylum-seekers being sent to Nauru and Manus Island detention centers are particularly vulnerable. While they are not being placed in a war zone in Nauru, Australia should not send asylum-seekers, especially when they may have mental, physical and economic problems, into a detention center for an undetermined period without adequate legal and medical provisions.

Despite Australia’s move to improve facilities on Nauru, the most glaring problem remains; asylum seekers will be held in a legal gray zone outside of Australia’s borders and outside of the protections of Australian law. Further, off-shoring asylum-seeker processing serves to restrict journalistic access and the flow of public information to the public. These issues are the crux of the UNHCR insistence that “all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory [should] be processed in Australia, consistent with general practice.”Add to this Australia’s dubious political and economic pressures and incentives that the government is applying liberally in order to secure the island as their national penal colony. Australia has the option to use its economic and strategic clout in the Pacific in order to benefit the region and promote humanitarian aims. Taking advantage of the economic woes and political instability in Nauru through the perpetuation and expansion of the Pacific Solution is undermining Australia’s standing among its Pacific island neighbors and in the international community.

Pacific Energy Summit Showcases ‘The New Development Norm’

An aerial view of Marovo Lagoon in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Photo Credit: United Nations via Flickr Creative Commons
An aerial view of Marovo Lagoon in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Photo Credit: United Nations via Flickr Creative Commons

Pacific Island Countries are simultaneously at the frontlines of feeling the effects of climate change and creating solutions. Development projects and political commitments in the South Pacific are setting precedents and shifting the global perspective of sustainable energy. The 2013 Pacific Energy Summit in Auckland, New Zealand March 24-26 closed with strong results that will continue to drive investment in sustainable development projects.  New funding of $635 million was secured for projects throughout the Pacific. Similar to Pacific Island Forum meetings, the Summit was preceded by a Pacific Leaders Energy Summit in Nuku’alofa, Tonga that also served as a launching pad for new ideas and to assess existing projects.

 Organized by the Government of New Zealand and the European Union – major funders of development projects and tied to the region economically – the Pacific Energy Summit is another positive example of multilateral cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.  Close to 80 projects were presented at the Summit, enabling donors and the private sector to partner on projects of mutual benefit. Additional sponsors included the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Asia Development Bank and The World Bank. More than half of the $635 million secured will be “in concessional loans to support over 40 of the proposed projects”($380 million), and only $255 million committed will be grant funding.

 UNDP Administrator Helen Clark recently stated that the potential for renewable energy – harnessing wind, sun and tidal opportunities – was the most promising area for development in the Pacific; a significant challenge Clark pointed out, however, is the “tyranny of distance.” Therefore it is critical that Pacific Island Countries remain united in their mutual economic, political and energy goals for the Pacific as the Pacific Island Forum continues to garner additional international observers and the Pacific Plan is reviewed this year.

 The recent Summit’s new funding will enable most Pacific Island Countries to reach a target of obtaining 50% of their energy from renewables within five years; several states are already leading the way. The Tonga Energy Road Map (TERM) was a highlight of the Leaders Summit as a model for a “well-designed and integrated country action” plan. The TERM drew an additional $6.5 million in funding from the European Union over the next three months. Last October, Tokelau became the first nation relying totally on renewable energy, in their case solar energy.

 In a statement on March 22 in Tonga, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres emphasized the overwhelmingly constructive impacts of pursuing renewable energy in the Pacific nationally, regionally and internationally. For example, the Cook Islands, and Tonga spend 30% and 15%, respectively, of their GDPs on importing fossil fuels; those funds could instead be spent on adaptation, education and public health. Additionally, Pacific Island Countries making the switch to renewable energy provides necessary models of successful plans for other states. Figueres calls the plans and actions of the Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga and Tuvalu to transition to renewable energy for electricity generation as “a courageous example of what the rest of the world needs to do.”

 Figueres and others have called for Pacific nations to be the catalyst that the international community needs to act on real, workable climate change rules and frameworks. Countries in the Pacific will not be able to “reverse global emission trends,” but they can signal to governments and markets alike that the path toward a green, low carbon economy is irreversible and “the new development norm.” Other small island country leaders such as President of Kiribati Anote Tong and former president Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives have played significant advocacy roles within the international community to promote the plight of small states among Climate Change difficulties. Steadily the tide is turning in favor of Pacific development projects, but it may take a continued, concerted effort by a resolute Pacific Island Forum and group of small island leaders to maintain this momentum and convince larger states to change their habits and transition to green economies.

 Was Figueres too bold in her call to action? Are Pacific Island Countries making national plans and setting energy targets that are too ambitious? As Matthew Dornan writes for East Asia Forum, small island nations in the Pacific cannot raise funds necessary for these projects internally; therefore, they must turn to international development grants and soft loans as obtained at the Summit. Ambitious targets indicate to potential funders that a country is more serious about the long-term implications of projects and so the probability is higher that the country will receive more investment. Realistic or not, these targets are a step in the right direction if they are produced from cohesive national and regional plans that seek to consider individual stakeholders.

 The Pacific has been a place for inspiration for internationally acclaimed authors and artists such as Paul Gaguin to Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson since the 1800s. While states work to keep their beaches pristine, oceans full of fish and water supplies sufficient, the sustainable energy projects and forums continue to inspire enthusiasts of renewables and international collaboration alike. Renewable energy benefits the environment, local residents and businesses; however, a one-size-fits-all approach to mitigating climate change, like energy projects in other parts of the world, will not work for the Pacific. To help maintain momentum for the new ‘development norm’ in the Pacific and elsewhere, there is a distinct need to improve media coverage of the challenges and opportunities brought on by Climate Change in the Pacific. The new Carnegie program Ocean Matters is one initiative that helps to bring environmental journalism to the forefront.

Pacific Islands Forum Facing Climate Realities

“Our islands are like the jewels in a blue crown and, like the diversity of colour, shape and types of jewels, our islands embody the uniqueness of our cultures and way of life and the surrounding ocean that sustains us and connects us.” – Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna

Too much of the hype surrounding the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum meetings in Rarotonga, Cook Islands has focused on the prospective visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the struggle for influence between the US and China in the South Pacific region.  The theme for this Leader’s Forum, Large Ocean Island States – the Pacific Challenge, deserves far more attention as Pacific Island nations work on creating and maintaining a sustainable Pacific environment.  The Forum Island Countries (FICs) are at the forefront of not only the effects of climate change, but also the solutions and coping mechanisms.  Therefore the agreements forged during this week’s meetings will be a critical test of the region’s resolve to continue the momentum of achievements and to serve as an example for future regional collaboration in other parts of the world.     

Climate change has been central to the Pacific Islands Forum agendas in recent years.  In 2009 the Leaders launched a Call to Action, stating “For Pacific Island states, climate change is the great challenge of our time. It threatens not only our livelihoods and living standards, but the very viability of some of our communities. Though the role of Pacific Island States in the causes of climate change is small, the impact on them is great.”  Involving both mitigation and adaptation efforts to overcome threats caused by climate change, the Pacific Islands Forum has advocated for international assistance to support the small island states.

Launched in May 2009 at the Pacific Island Leaders Meeting (PALM) in Japan, the Pacific Environment Community Fund has proved to be a successful catalyst to facilitate sustainable development and to combat the negative effects of climate change in the region.  At the launch, Japan provided a ¥6.8billion (approximately USD$66 million) contribution to Forum Island Countries for environmental issues. According to the program, “each FIC is provided with an indicative allocation of USD$4million to support projects with a focus on the provision of solar power generation systems and sea water desalination plants or a combination of both.”  The governments of Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu have utilized the PEC Fund, with Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia still working on agreements for local projects.

In the same way that sustainable, equitable trade is a factor in the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, New Zealand has emphasized sustainable development and renewable energy in particular as part of its NZ Aid Programme.  This was highlighted in last year’s Forum dialogue in Auckland.  The NZ government is providing NZ$7 million to Tokelau to install solar power systems which will provide almost 100 percent of the energy needs for the state’s over 1,400 residents.  With international assistance, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu are all undertaking projects in renewable energy.

One of the most ambitious and pioneering plans has been the Pacific Oceanscape, envisioned by His Excellency Anote Tong, President of Kiribati.  It is a framework for creating marine protected areas and a mindset “to ensure in perpetuity the health and wellbeing of our oceans and ourselves.” I highly recommend watching the Pacific Oceanscape video.  The project has been closely supported by Conservation International, including the FICs’ programs The Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the Micronesia Challenge, and the Cook Islands Marine Park.  During this session of the Pacific Islands Forum, the Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna is expected to announce the opening of country’s Marine Park, which includes about half of its exclusive economic zone.

In thinking practically and further ahead, the Kiribati government is working on a contingency plan to move its entire population abroad.  In March this year, Kiribati President Anote Tong was in talks with the government of Fiji to purchase 5,000 acres of land as an ‘investment’, to provide a new home for its 113,000 residents.  Currently, Kiribati is about two meters above sea level.  Part of the plan for “migration with dignity” includes educating and training its population so Kiribati residents have skills desired by other Pacific states, including Australia and New Zealand.

The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meetings and smaller workshops surrounding the main events are about education and dealing with the challenges and opportunities within the region.  While globalization and improved transportation has facilitated the communication and trade levels among Forum states, the effects of climate change, increasing energy costs, overfishing, coral bleaching and geopolitical challenges have appeared to harden the resolve of Forum states.  With so many positive sustainable development and energy-related projects lined up (and hopefully more to be announced this week) the outcomes of the 43rd meeting in the Cook Islands should be watched not because the US and China will be battling for their attention, but because these small islands in the Pacific are among the first to ambitiously battle for their own survival in the face of threats to their homes (by rising sea levels) and livelihoods (by overfishing and coral bleaching).

Review of Pacific Plan Essential for an Effective Pacific Islands Forum

Between 31 July and 3 August, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat meetings in Fiji set a tone for the forthcoming leaders’ meetings in the Cook Islands at the end of August.  Much of the media focus surrounding the Pacific has centered on the US involvement in the dialogue as part of its rebalancing, and to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand’s changing relations with Fiji.  As the Secretariat meetings have indicated, however, reforming the Pacific Plan to reflect the contemporary political, economic and security conditions in the Pacific will be critical for this year.  Issues of labor mobility and trade integration within the Pacific Islands region will be critical to the continued development and success of the Pacific Plan and the Pacific as a whole. 

A product of the 2004 Auckland Declaration, the Pacific Plan is a ‘living document’ that enables initiatives to adapt with the framework. The Pacific Plan has four pillars aimed at enhancing economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security of the Pacific through regionalism.  Securing actions at the national level has been a paramount concern given the diversity of states and disparity in wealth.

One goal in reviewing the current Pacific Plan should be to improve labor mobility in the region. This goal is steadily gaining traction, but policymakers need to take care to avoid some of the negative aspects of temporary migration and to provide more sustainability.  The Australian Pacific Seasonal Work Pilot Scheme and New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme have been workable models to increase remittances among the island states.  In fact, there are recruiting firms throughout the Pacific that promote workers for both New Zealand and Australian schemes (see, for example, http://www.workreadyvanuatu.com).    

However, the seasonal worker schemes create multiple dependencies on unskilled labor.  Horticulture, viticulture and other industries that have seasonal labor needs are more inclined to take on labor with less ability to make demands for rights and benefits; furthermore, migrant labor provides a pool of labor potentially unavailable or unwilling to do the grunt work required in those industries.  Migrants, on the other hand, become dependent on impermanent, unskilled and unpredictable work.  While remittances are highly valued as essential Pacific economies, the type of work created for seasonal workers is currently not the most sustainable either in terms of returning home as a skilled migrant or with a secure income.   

Such an exchange of labor could be expanded to all Forum Island Countries (FICs) in a way that encourages training and the exchange of skills. (See, for example, doctor exchanges between Venezuela and Cuba as a progressive idea; it hasn’t worked well in practice however due to strong ideological fervor among both states).  For a more skilled and sustainable Pacific economy, training is needed outside of the temporary program, and protections are needed against exploitation.  Migrants and temporary workers are typically the most disadvantaged in in terms of labor rights and the Pacific has the potential to produce a more equitable regional model.

Like the issue of labor mobility, creating a common market and pursuing free trade in the Pacific are goals that require careful attention.  Both Australian and New Zealand foreign ministries have explicitly stated that their approach to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus negotiations differs from their traditional approach to free trade agreements; rather than focusing solely on their states’ commercial interests, Australia and New Zealand aim to promote the development and capacity of FICs.  The two regional powers additionally must maintain competitiveness with potential trade agreements that FICs make with the European Union. 

With ever-increasing collusion among trade, development and foreign policies, taking steps toward free trade agreements is a precondition for aid and greater access to NZ and Australian markets.  The goal of PACER Plus is to start with free trade within the FICs to demonstrate their abilities to cope with such policies.  One problem encountered by the region is that the principles of free trade clash with certain traditional Pacific principles (e.g. property rights).  Regionally, community development solutions such as bulk purchasing invite avenues for creativity and take into consideration the nature and interests of Pacific Island states.

Globalization and the changing international political landscape are creating an increasingly competitive environment in the Pacific.  As the region draws greater attention from China and the US for its geostrategic position and natural resources, the Pacific Islands Forum and its member states should secure a more formidable voice, particularly on issues that impact the region.  An effective review and renewal of the Pacific Plan then must include two of the most noteworthy subjects for development, improved labor mobility and closer economic relations.