Jul 20, 2019 Last Updated 3:02 AM, Jul 19, 2019

Sopoaga is saved by the bell

  • Jul 21, 2019
  • Published in June

A mere technicality in parliamentary rules saved the government of Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, from facing a confidence motion last month.

News of the motion of no confidence against the Sopoaga Government broke the same day he hosted visiting United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in the capital Funafuti.

A non-government backbencher, Isaia Taape had filed the motion days before Guterres arrived on the island nation, as an attempt to block changes he claimed Sopoaga had made to a bill on amendments to the island’s constitution.

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More notches in the belt

  • Jul 21, 2019
  • Published in June
China’s BRI gains momentum

PACIFIC leaders are embracing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with renewed enthusiasm following China’s hosting of the second BRI Forum in April.

5000 participants from over 150 countries and 90 international organisations attended the Forum according to Chinese authorities. It was a rich ground for the classic “grip and grin,” producing a succession of photos of beaming national leaders, including (now former) Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, standing before a sea of red flags, firmly clasping the hand of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Beyond its public relations value, the Forum also produced a 283-item list of deliverables; initiatives either proposed or launched by China, agreements signed during or immediately before the forum, multilateral cooperation
mechanisms under the BRI framework, investment projects and project lists, and financing initiatives.

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AFTER more than 310 nuclear detonations across the region, the era of nuclear testing in the Pacific ended in 1996. Since then, the nuclear issue has dropped off the agenda for many people, with attention re-focussed on climate change and other environmental hazards.

Across the region, however, a band of activists has continued to campaign for environmental remediation at the nuclear test sites. They’ve also sought medical assistance and compensation for the civilian and military personnel who suffered adverse health effects from their work at the sites, during the 50 years of Cold War nuclear testing.

In recent years, this band of campaigners has shrunk, as age and ill-health has caught up with the generation who led a defining regional movement of the 20th century – the movement for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific.

After a long struggle with cancer, Roland Oldham died in Tahiti on 16 March, aged 68. Oldham was President of Moruroa e Tatou, the association of former Maohi workers from the Moruroa and Fangataufa nuclear test sites. The death of one of French Polynesia’s leading anti-nuclear campaigners is just one of many in recent years – in Marshall Islands, French Polynesia and Australia. These campaigners, however, have inspired younger people born after the end of testing. The torch has been passed to a new generation, who have recognised that the radioactive legacies of nuclear testing with be with us for many years to come.

Moruroa e Tatou
Tanemaruata Michel Arakino was born on Reao, an island not far from Moruroa Atoll. For 17 years, Arakino worked with the French military unit responsible for collecting biological samples at the nuclear test site, to determine the spread of radioactive particles. Working as a scuba diver, he plunged into the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll to collect samples of water, seaweed and sediments, just hours after underground nuclear tests had been detonated deep in the atoll.
Arakino reported: “In my job, I was regularly in the so-called ‘hot spots’ to gather samples from the ground and the sea for biological testing on Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls. It is likely that while diving to gather plankton above ground zero, I swallowed or breathed in radioactive particles. In no case did my senior officers inform me of the risks I might incur.” Arakino’s story is just one example of the dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs allocated to Pacific islanders in support of the nuclear testing programs. Thousands of Maohi workers staffed the test sites at Moruroa and Fangataufa during thirty years of French nuclear testing. Five years after the last test, the association Moruroa e Tatou (Moruroa and Us) took up their cause. Roland Oldham co-founded the association in July 2001 with John Taroanui Doom and Bruno Barrillot. They spent years challenging successive French governments and local Tahitian leaders who refused to address the health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing.

Roland was a driving force in the campaign for reparations for the Maohi workers who suffered adverse health effects, finally leading to the passage of France’s Morin compensation law in 2009. Trade unionist, political campaigner, blues guitarist with the band Atomic Blues – he was a man of many parts and a true Pacific warrior. In a final interview, he stated simply: “In spite of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, I’ve tried to learn from
them. I think that in all I’ve done, I’ve tried to bring a bit of happiness to others.”
Roland’s death follows the loss of his key collaborators. On Christmas Day 2016, the death of John Taroanui Doom meant the Pacific lost a leading scholar, religious leader and anti-nuclear advocate. John witnessed the first French atmospheric test at Moruroa in July 1966. That moment led to a lifetime’s support for nuclear survivors, through Moruroa e Tatou and ecumenical work through the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) and
World Council of Churches (WCC). The death of Bruno Barrillot in March 2017 robbed the association of another key supporter – Bruno wrote numerous books documenting the environmental damage of French nuclear testing and the impact on the health of the Maohi people of French Polynesia.
Throughout the era of nuclear testing, French officials argued that there was no danger arising from France’s 193 nuclear tests. At the time, these claims were backed by French Polynesia’s longserving President Gaston Flosse and key ministers like Edouard Fritch – the French territory’s current leader. But Tahitian anti-nuclear campaigners have been vindicated in their concerns. In a stunning statement to the French Polynesian Assembly last November, President Fritch admitted that successive governments led by Gaston Flosse had lied about the health and environmental effects of nuclear testing: “For 30 years we lied to this people that these tests were clean. It was us who lied and I was a member of this gang! And for what reason did we lie? Because our own leader had seen a bomb explode.”

Roll call of champions
For fifty years between 1946 and 1996, there were more than 310 nuclear tests. The roll call of nuclear sacrifice zones across the region is long: Bikini, Enewetak, Johnston, Monte Bello, Maralinga, Emu Field, Malden Island, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Moruroa and Fangataufa.
The roll call of anti-nuclear champions is also spread across the region. Artists and teachers like the late Teresia Teaiwa and Epeli Hau’ofa have highlighted the way that collective regional identity as Pacific islanders was reinforced and reaffirmed through struggles against nuclear testing, the dumping of nuclear waste and other threats to the ocean environment.
Last year saw the death of Aboriginal elder Yami Lester, blinded by the Totem 1 British nuclear test in 1953. For decades, Lester campaigned for the rights of indigenous people affected by the UK nuclear tests conducted on Aboriginal land in South Australia. Lester was a key witness before the 1985 McClelland Royal Commission into the tests.
While some Aboriginal people lived in contaminated zones for up to six years after the end of testing, others had been relocated to coastal towns away from their traditional lands. The Royal Commission recognised that the denial of access to land for displaced people “contributed to their emotional, social and material distress and deprivation.” Many Marshall Islanders were also exiled from their contaminated homelands. After the 1954 Bravo test, Lemeyo Abon was one of the children contaminated by radioactivity, rubbing fallout into her hair like shampoo. Later relocated from Rongelap atoll, she began a decades-long odyssey which has left many Rongelapese still living in exile. Sadly, Mrs Abon died in February 2018, depriving the world of one of the few remaining witnesses from the Bravo test.

Successive RMI leaders have called for further compensation from the United States, but the Marshall Islands has also lost its outspoken champions. The death of Ambassador Tony de Brum in August 2017, a prophet on disarmament, climate change and Micronesian sovereignty, has been followed by that of Bill Graham, who died on 1 March 2018, the 64th anniversary of the Bravo hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll (spreading contamination across the nation, Bravo was the United States’ largest ever nuclear detonation). Graham served as public advocate for the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal, and was a key architect of the new Republic of Marshall Islands Nuclear Commission.

Young people step up
In the 1970s, students from the University of the South Pacific (USP) played a key role in initiating the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement. Today, the Marshall Islands Students Association (MISA) at USP has taken up the challenge of educating a new generation of Pacific students about the residual radioactivity on contaminated atolls in the Pacific. For those willing to return to their home islands, this pollution restricts the use of local food sources, due to the concentration of radioisotopes in the food chain. Inspired by the Pacific Climate Warriors, young people around the region are campaigning on climate change. But there is a strong connection between sea level rise and nuclear contamination, because all the nuclear powers dumped radioactive material and contaminated soil into the ocean or shallow burial sites. As they dismantled their nuclear test site in 1996, the French military dumped more than 2,600 tonnes of nuclear-contaminated material into the waters off Moruroa and Hao atolls. In Australia, parts of the desert around Maralinga are still fenced because of
plutonium contamination.
In the Marshall Islands, Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll hosts a massive concrete dome which covers tons of nuclear contaminated waste. The radioactive legacy of US nuclear tests on Enewetak was buried under concrete in the mid-1970s, in a giant crater created by a nuclear blast. Today, however, the dome is cracking, leaching contaminants into the ocean environment. In her 2018 poem ‘Anointed’, young Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil Kijiner mourns the damage to Runit: “You were a whole island once. Who remembers you beyond your death? Who would have us forget that you were once green globes of fruit, pandanus roots and whispers of canoes? Who knows the stories of the life you led before?”
Jetnil-Kijiner was one of many young activists from the Pacific who played a crucial role in lobbying for the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted by the United Nations in July 2017. Long-time campaigners like Fiji’s Vanessa Griffen and Tahiti’s Roland Oldham were accompanied by younger activists, who travelled to New York to lobby governments as they negotiated the new treaty.
Karina Lester, a proud Yankunytjatjara-Anangu woman and daughter of the late Yami Lester, came to New York bearing a petition from people across Oceania. It urged governments to include provisions in the treaty to aid the survivors of nuclear testing. This lobbying led to a key section in the treaty obliging parties to assist nuclear survivors, with the preamble recognising “the disproportionate impact of nuclear-weapon activities on indigenous peoples.”
When it is ratified, the treaty will open new avenues for assistance to nuclear survivors. For this reason, despite the deaths of its three founders, Moruroa e Tatou will continue its work. At the association’s next general meeting, the Presidency may be taken up by the former PCC general secretary, Reverend François Pihaatae. Time moves on, but the torch still burns.

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Electing the Prime Minister

ON April 24 Manasseh Sogavare was elected as Prime Minister of Solomon Islands. However the elections sparked not only a legal challenge, but also rioting in the streets of Honiara. In this article, Solomon Islands’ Dr Transform Aqorau offers some ideas as to how the country’s electoral system and the process of electing the Prime Minister can be improved.

For the second time, Honiara residents have had to suffer the ignominy of riots following the election of the Prime Minister. Innocent businesses have been impacted, injuries have been sustained, and the country’s image has been tarnished once again by a small group of people in Honiara. After his election as Prime Minister in 2014, I had a meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on New Year’s Eve at his Office. Present at
our meeting was Derek Futaiasi, Deputy Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. I conveyed my concerns about the uncertainties of governing, the political instability and the social consequences that it was having especially on young people. I suggested that he should establish a bipartisan group from within Parliament to work with Solomon Islands academics such as Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka and Dr. Gordon Nanau, and perhaps an expatriate constitutional expert, to look at a form of and structure of government that could minimise the opportunities for political instability. I said that the current system was unsustainable. I also said that it would not surprise me if one day, the youths would burn down Parliament House at Vavaya Ridge. They are less inhibited, more techno savvy and have less respect for the authority than previous generations.

A possible way forward
I propose that the we have a process to preselect candidates who wish to contest the elections. Instead of the current system where a person only needs three people to nominate them, a candidate must be pre-selected by a minimum of 1,000 duly registered voters from a constituency. This is not intended to make it difficult, but to allow serious candidates to discuss their policies and intentions and build coalitions, and whereby people can participate more effectively in the choosing of the candidates that they wish to contest the elections. This would be a more participatory, bottoms up approach towards choosing their candidates, rather than the present system whereby individuals can simply seek out three members of a community to sign their nomination papers, pay the requisite fee and run for elections. In this process, a candidate would still have to pay a fee, but he must be able to show that he is supported to contest the elections. This will not eliminate bribery and gifting but at least people can participate more fully in who they want to see contest the elections.

The first past the post system needs to be enhanced so that it is the first past the post with 51 per cent of the votes who get selected. This can be done either through having a limited preferential system of voting or run-off elections to ensure that whoever gets 51 per cent is declared the winner. It goes without saying that representation in Parliament should reflect the majority of the voters. This is not the case for most of the members of Parliament so in reality they cannot really claim to represent their people. In most cases, they only represent a very small proportion of their constituents. In the era of the Rural Constituency Development Fund (RCDF) where people complain that MPs only support those who vote for them, this would probably ensure a greater sense of fairness in the distribution of the RCDF.

I propose that we have direct elections of the Prime Minister by the people. It will be expensive, but given the behaviour of MPs after they are elected, the holing up in hotels, the alleged involvement of logging companies, and the alienation of the people from choosing their Prime Minister, we should change the current system. I propose that after the Parliamentarians are elected, that they choose two candidates from amongst them to  contest the position of Prime Minister. They can have their own process of elimination, but then revert to the people to elect the head of the Executive arm of the Government. It will be expensive, but it would ensure greater participatory democracy by the people. The alternative could be a hybrid system that would be involve nomination by the Parliamentarians, but broaden the base to choose the head of the Executive. This could entail all the provincial government members, or may be a college of electors chosen from within the different constituencies who could be chosen during the elections. The college of electors must contain equal representation from women and men. The Prime Minister would be elected by the college of electors, all the members of the provincial governments and the members of Parliament. I suggest that the college of electors consist of 10 per constituency, that would make 100 additional representatives. It will be expensive, but it allows for greater participation of the people in the choosing of the Head of the Executive

As we all know, the current situation is not sustainable, not because of the system but there is perhaps too much greed and corruption involved. Unfortunately, these are not factors that can be regulated. Granted our members already face a lot of pressure as it is, most of which are selfinflicted by the funds that they manage. I would like to invite a general discussion on the way forward especially in ensuring that the people have a bigger say in the election of the Prime Minister. My proposals might be a bit more expensive, but at least we would not have any reason to protest and damage innocent people’s properties. Above all, it would be a more
democratic people driven system, that would be less susceptible to the vagaries of the pressures that logging companies bring to bear on the current system. I suggest that we would trial it at the provincial governments initially to test peoples understanding of the system, then roll it out to the national elections. Give it some serious thought.

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Partner of choice?

  • Jul 21, 2019
  • Published in March

AUSTRALIA and Vanuatu are slowly moving towards a bilateral security treaty after a series of meetings between the Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of both countries.

Welcoming his counterpart Scott Morrison to Port Vila in January, Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas stated: “The Australian Government continues to remain an important partner in police cooperation and security, both at the national and regional level.”

But the nuance is significant. Australia is ‘an’ important partner, not ‘the’ important partner, despite Morrison’s pledge “to reinforce Australia as Vanuatu’s economic, development and security partner of choice.”

Before leaving for Port Vila, Morrison stressed that the firstever bilateral visit by an Australian Prime Minister was part of his government’s renewed focus on the Pacific: “It’s part of our refocusing of our international efforts on our own region, in our own backyard and making sure we can make the biggest possible difference.”

Despite the positive dialogue over bilateral relations, trade, policing and security, it’s clear that the government of Vanuatu retains a strong commitment to its longstanding policy of nonalignment. During his visit to Australia in February, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu stressed that his country would maintain partnerships with both China and Australia, despite Canberra’s concern over growing Chinese influence in the region.

“We are happy to enter into a security agreement with Australia,” Regenvanu said. “We made it clear it won’t be an exclusive agreement, and we can enter into similar security agreements with other partners as we choose. We have these existing relationships and we would not want to cut them off by having to just rely on Australia. We would like all our partners to contribute in some way to our needs in this area.”

Frequent flyers
In January, US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued the U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment. The annual intelligence analysis stated: “China is currying favour with numerous Pacific Island nations through bribery, infrastructure investment and diplomatic engagement.”

Much as Canberra denies that a policy of strategic denial is driving its renewed engagement with Forum Island Countries, Morrison’s recent visit to Vanuatu and Fiji was driven by concern over China’s growing partnership with island neighbours. Canberra and Wellington are eager to show the Trump administration that they are active in a region Morrison has described, in typically patronising Australian language, as “our patch” and “our backyard.”

Relations with Vanuatu have much improved since last year, when Australia’s then-Minister for International Development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells condemned Chinese aid projects in Vanuatu and the Sydney Morning Herald published a series of articles about a purported Chinese military base in Luganville (claims quickly denied by Prime Minister Salwai and Foreign Minister Regenvanu).

The furore raised hackles on both sides, leading to a series of visits to reset the relationship. In June 2018, Prime Minister Salwai made an official visit to Canberra and then met informally with Morrison on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Port Moresby in November. Morrison’s unprecedented bilateral visit in January allowed Canberra to discuss a range of proposals, from a bilateral security treaty to increased labour mobility, trade and telecommunications links.

Morrison was accompanied by Senator Anne Ruston, Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific as well as Nick Warner, director-general of the newly created Office of

National Intelligence (ONI). A seasonal diplomat and intelligence co-ordinator, Warner has previously served as the first RAMSI special coordinator, Australian Ambassador for Counterterrorism and head of Australia’s overseas spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS).

Just days after the Prime Ministerial visit, another delegation of senior security and intelligence officials travelled to Port Vila, before moving on to Tonga, Fiji and Solomon Islands. The delegation was led by the Chief of the Australian Defence Force General Angus Campbell, accompanied by Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin, Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram and Peter Vickery, Deputy Director-General of the domestic intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

During his visit, Prime Minister Morrison opened the refurbished Vanuatu Police College. Australia has also made commitments to fund new infrastructure for the Vanuatu Mobile Force and Police Maritime Wing, build a new police station on Malekula and provide increased training in Australia for Vanuatu police.

General Campbell also committed to taking Australian security engagement with the region to a new level, noting: “Defence plays a key role in this endeavour – we are and will continue to enhance our security cooperation with our Pacific neighbours, building on our existing and long-standing engagement, including under the Defence Cooperation Program.”

As part of the regional Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP), Vanuatu will receive a new Guardian-class patrol boat to replace an older vessel supplied under the Howard-era Pacific Patrol Boat Program.

On 7 February, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne then made a flying visit to Port Vila to meet Vanuatu Foreign Minister Regenvanu, just days before he travelled to Australia on an official visit.

Competing visions of security
Before leaving for Australia, Regenvanu spoke to Islands Business at his office in Port Vila, welcoming the increased engagement by Canberra.

“We’re delighted by the Prime Minister choosing to come to Vanuatu,” he said. “In fact it’s the first bilateral visit ever. I think the value of the visit was the inter-personal connections, much more than anything substantial.”

Regenvanu noted that the flurry of visits has furthered discussions on the bilateral and regional security agenda, even if the two sides are not in complete agreement about the content of a possible security treaty: “There’s a great deal more clarity now, especially on the Australian side, about our willingness to work with them on what we perceive to be security issues for Vanuatu. These include police and policing, intelligence gathering and maritime boundaries and – one of the main ones – responding to natural disasters.

“Subsequent to the visit, the Vanuatu Cabinet approved the establishment of a National Security Council for Vanuatu, the first time we will have one. That’s going to be established now to develop a National Security Strategy and Australia is particularly interested in resourcing the development of that strategy.” Reflecting the regional view that climate change is the greatest single threat to security, the new National Security Council includes the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, alongside chiefs and civil society representatives as ad hoc members.

As reported by Islands Business last May, Vanuatu will not give ground on its long-standing policies of nonalignment, demilitarisation and nuclear free status.

The leaking of intelligence on a Chinese military base in Vanuatu in April 2018 came as PNG Foreign Minister RimbinkPato was in Beijing, preparing for Chinese President Xi Jinping’sNovember visit to Papua New Guinea. The same month, RalphRegenvanu was at a Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Baku, Azerbaijan.

In 1983, Vanuatu was the first Pacific island country to join the NAM, followed by Fiji in 2011. At the 2018 Baku summit, the Vanuatu Foreign Minister stressed that his country is committed “to be non-aligned from major global powers, to free people from colonial oppression, to ensure international peace and stability, to champion human rights, and to ensure an inclusive and reformed multilateral order.”

Speaking at a public forum at USP Emalus on 8 February, Regenvanu reiterated: “In spite of competing interests, Vanuatu continues to uphold a non-aligned foreign policy which is most explicitly manifested in our principles and practice of denuclearisation and non-militarisation of the Pacific Ocean.”

Trade and climate
While welcoming Australian support for policing, intelligence sharing and maritime surveillance, the Vanuatu government stresses the relationship is part of a broader development partnership. For Prime Minister Salwai, “the Vanuatu Government continues to place a specific emphasis on increased trade with Australia, particularly, incremental increases to its export base and other initiatives….The Vanuatu Government also continues to value its participation in labour mobility initiatives such as the Seasonal Workers Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme.”

Successive Vanuatu governments have complained that Australia has restricted export opportunities through non-tariff trade barriers such as quarantine and phytosanitary controls. One long-standing grievance has been the ban on the importation of commercial quantities of kava to Australia, restricting a potential export earner for countries like Vanuatu and Fiji.

During his visit, Morrison made commitments to “progress” a pilot program to ease some of the limits on kava importation. However Foreign Minister Regenvanu told Islands Business there is still a way to go before the trade can expand.

“The kava announcement was very welcome, but we have to see how that goes,” Regenvanu said. “One of the main focusses of the Vanuatu government is to get something out of that announcement. We are working with our Australian counterparts to see how we can get something that’s real and tangible and makes a difference, especially for Pacific populations in Australia who are the main consumers of kava.”

Throughout his January tour, Morrison stressed his government was committed to stronger climate action. No one really believed him, given the Australian government’s reluctance to commit to faster reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and refusal to provide extra funds to the Green Climate Fund (GCF).

This refusal is in part driven by the belief that Australia should hold the purse strings, rather than operate through multilateral funds where developing countries have a say in the allocation of resources. In Port Vila, Morrison stressed that “the investments that we’re making to combat climate change particularly in the Pacific, is going to be done directly; not through third parties, not through global climate funds.”

With a possible change of government in Canberra by May and Vanuatu going to the polls in early 2020, finalisation of a new security treaty has a way to go. But whoever wins office, you can’t have a Pacific policy if you don’t have a China policy. Beijing will continue as a major player in the region and all Forum members will continue to grapple with this reality.

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