Aug 14, 2020 Last Updated 10:45 PM, Aug 12, 2020

Australia’s Assistant Treasurer says in the post-COVID environment Canberra is willing to re-examine its policies including loan concessionality, debt consolidation and aid allocations to Pacific Islands nations but is not giving any promises or firm commitments.

 

Michael Sukkar is attending the Forum Economic Minister Meeting which kicks off this morning. Australia has already reallocated well over A$100 million to assist Pacific Islands respond to the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19. But those funds have been reallocated from the existing aid budget.

The next federal budget is due for delivery on October 6, and Sukkar says: “if we do seek to supplement aid or humanitarian assistance to our region, that will be done with the broad principles of the Pacific Step up and will be focussed primarily on our immediate Pacific region and neighbours.”

Sukkar expects discussion of the A$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility at today’s meeting. He says eight projects have been approved, utilising a mix of grants and non-concessional loans, and has not ruled out revisiting the nature of those loans, as there is “great value to moving to concessional loans”.

“Whilst I don’t want to necessarily announce any change of policy, I think the broad view is that we have to be nimble as we possibly can and that means re-examining all pre-existing COVID programmes,” Sukkar told Pacific journalists yesterday.

“I think it’s safe to say that in a post-COVID environment the Australian government is willing to re-examine everything with fresh eyes… and the view is that with the infrastructure facility, more concessional loan rates or loan terms would be likely to unlock particular projects.”

The Minister said discussions about consolidating debt  in multilateral forums is “certainly gathering steam.” He also said the demand for Pacific island seasonal workers is likely to continue and the Australian government has done “some fairly important work in ensuring that appropriate quarantining arrangements  and protocols are established to ensure they can continue to come.”

“With the Pacific yet to experience COVID-19, we need to err on the side of caution to ensure that the COVID-19 doesn't get a foothold.

“I think it would be a disaster with fragile health systems and other infrastructure for Australia to effectively be sending COVID into the Pacific through the Pacific island workforce,” Sukkar says.

Preparations are currently underway to send 120 ni-Vanuatu workers to the Northern Territory to help with the mango harvest and there are hopes in other Pacific nations that they will also be able to supply workers for upcoming harvests.

On tourism, Sukkar believes in the longer-term, travel bubbles are “an absolutely worthy way to go” but there is still a lot of work to do on protocols, and that no country in the world could say they have yet “perfected the art of contact tracing and ring-fencing before COVID-19 has the opportunity to spread like wildfire.”

“Until you really have perfected that, I think it is very hard to put in place a 'bubble'. 

“But the concept of a bubble is really the only long-term solution and the only sense of certainty that we can all have in getting back to what is an economic engine room for the Pacific.”

In Japan, they’re called hibakusha – the survivors of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later. Seventy-five years on, the survivors remember those days, and call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Yasujiro Tanaka was just 3.4 kilometres from the blast, as the United States dropped an atomic weapon on Nagasaki on 9 August.

“I was three years old at the time of the bombing,” he said. “I don’t remember much, but I do recall that my surroundings turned blindingly white, like a million camera flashes going off at once. Then, pitch darkness. I was buried alive under the house, I’ve been told.”

No one truly knows how many people died in these nuclear attacks. Estimates range from 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, in the initial attack and subsequent weeks. Other hibakusha lived on for decades, stricken by cancer, leukemia and other diseases caused by exposure to ionising radiation.

Across the Pacific, there are also nuclear survivors, who witnessed more than 310 nuclear tests in Australia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia. On the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their story too is part of nuclear history.

From the very beginning, the Pacific islands were central to the nuclear era. Two US aircraft carried the bombs to Japan from Tinian Island in the Marianas Islands: Enola Gay (which transported the atomic weapon codenamed ‘Little Boy’ to Hiroshima) and Bockscar (which dropped ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki).

After the attack on Japan and the death of tens of thousands of civilians, the United States, Britain and France developed their Cold War nuclear arsenals by testing nuclear weapons in Oceania. Nuclear survivors can roll off a long list of Pacific test sites: Bikini, Enewetak, Monte Bello, Emu Field, Maralinga, Malden Island, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Johnston (Kalama) Atoll, Moruroa Atoll, Fangataufa atoll.

From 1946 until 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. There were another 24 tests in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1962 (today, part of Kiribati), as well as nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere on rockets launched from Johnston Atoll. The largest US atmospheric nuclear test was conducted on Bikini Atoll on 1 March 1954. Codenamed “Bravo”, the test had an explosive yield of 15 megatons, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT explosive.

After the Bravo test, Lemeyo Abon was one of the children relocated from Rongelap, one of the northern RMI atolls contaminated by fallout from the Bravo test. This evacuation began a decades-long odyssey that has left many people still living in exile. After returning to live on the contaminated atoll for 30 years, she was again evacuated to Mejatto Island in 1985 aboard the Rainbow Warrior, just before it was attacked and sunk in Auckland Harbour by French intelligence agents (this year is the 35th anniversary of the French terrorist attack on the Greenpeace vessel, which killed photographer Fernando Pereira).

Abon later moved to the Marshall Islands capital Majuro, still far away from her home island, where she told me: “We are still living in this place in exile from our homeland, like a coconut floating in the sea. The United States has to live up to their responsibility and make sure our children and grandchildren will be cared for.”

Sadly, Lemeyo Abon died in exile in 2018, without returning to her home island.

For the Marshallese, the aftermath of the 1954 Bravo test led to tragic consequences. The US military and medical staff from Brookhaven National Laboratory, led by Dr. Robert Conard, saw an opportunity to research the effects of radiation on people living on contaminated land. Under Project 4.1, medical studies were undertaken on at least 539 men, women, and children – often without informed consent – including experimental surgery and injections of chromium-51, radioactive iodine, iron, zinc, and carbon-14.

Over time, Marshall Islanders began to question the way that the medical studies were being conducted. In 1975, Rongelap islander Nelson Anjain wrote a moving letter to Dr. Robert Conard: “I realise now that your entire career is based on our illness. We are far more valuable to you, than you are to us. You have never really cared about us as people – only as a group of guinea  pigs for your government’s bomb research effort. For me and the people of Rongelap, it is life which matters most. For you, it is facts and figures. There is no question about your technical competence, but we often wonder about your humanity. We don’t need you and your technical machinery. We want our life and our health. We want to be free.”

People working or living at the nuclear test sites faced the hazard that radioactive isotopes might be inhaled or ingested, potentially causing cancers and other illnesses. But islanders were rarely informed of the hazards of accumulated nuclear particles in the food chain, increasing the danger for those reluctant to give up their traditional diet of fish, coconut and breadfruit.

One example comes from the British hydrogen bomb testing program on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island. During Operation Grapple, the United Kingdom conducted nine atmospheric nuclear tests on Kiritimati and Malden Island in 1957-58.

Tekoti Rotan was one of more than 270 Fijians who witnessed these tests. Rotan was born in Banaba, the location of a major mining operation that eventually consumed two thirds of the island’s land. During the Second World War, the Banabans were removed to Kosrae by the Japanese military. After the war, Britain refused to send the Banabans back to their phosphate-rich home, and many were sent to Rabi in Fiji.

In 1957, as a member of the Fiji Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve, Tekoti Rotan was deployed to Kiritimati Island, as part of the UK naval task force for Operation Grapple. In an interview, he said that safety regulations limiting consumption of fish had little meaning for Fijians and Gilbertese living on Kiritimati during the nuclear testing program: “The only warning we had before the test, was they warned the people: ‘After the test, don’t eat any fish!’ But you know, I’m from Kiribati. I love raw fish and this is the only dangerous thing after the test. They said: ‘Don’t!’ but I ignored them. I went to the Kiribati people and said: ‘Hey, raw fish, we’re not supposed to eat the raw fish!’ But they said ‘Oh, we’ve been eating it and nothing’s happened.’ That was the biggest mistake for them.”

As France conducted 193 nuclear tests in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996, Maohi workers were often given the difficult, dirty and dangerous tasks.

Tanemaruata Michel Arakino was born on Reao, an island not far from Moruroa Atoll, site of 178 French nuclear tests (a further 15 nuclear tests were held at nearby Fangataufa Atoll). For 17 years, Arakino worked with the French military research unit responsible for collecting biological samples at the nuclear test sites, to determine the amount and spread of radioactive particles.

Working as a scuba diver, he also dove into the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll to collect samples of water, seaweed, and sediments, just hours after underground nuclear tests had been conducted in shafts drilled deep into the atoll.

Years later, Arakino told of the ways he may have been exposed to hazardous levels of ionising radiation: “In my job, I was regularly in the so-called ‘hot spots’ together samples from the ground and the sea for biological testing on Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls and across all of Polynesia, as well as for the testing of foods coming from outside the country. I was in charge of a garden with contaminated earth that we brought in from Fangataufa itself. The Biological Testing Service wanted to know what happens to vegetables grown in contaminated soil. It is likely that while working in this garden and 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.”

In French Polynesia today, the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll remains contaminated by plutonium and other long-lasting radioactive isotopes. As they dismantled the CEP nuclear test site after the end of testing in 1996, the French military dumped more than 2600 tonnes of nuclear-contaminated material into the waters off Moruroa (2580 tonnes at a site codenamed “Oscar” and a further 76 tonnes at site “Novembre”). The basalt base of the atoll is fractured by dozens of underground nuclear tests, creating fissures that may allow the leaching of radioactivity into the marine environment.

In the Marshall Islands, Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll hosts a massive concrete dome which covers tons and 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’, 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?”

In recent years, Pacific island citizens have played a crucial role in the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The treaty was adopted in 2017 at the United Nations over the objections of nuclear-armed and allied states. It proposes a global ban on nuclear weapons, framed in terms of humanitarianism, human rights and environmentalism. The TPNW also placed obligations on states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediate contaminated environments.

Japanese hibakusha Setsuko Thurlow gave the Nobel lecture in 2017, as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was presented the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to create the TPNW.

"We were not content to be victims”, Setsuko said. “We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist."

On 7 July this year, the third anniversary of the treaty adoption, Fiji became the 39th country to formally lodge its ratification documents with the United Nations. Ambassador Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said: “We hope today we are giving further momentum to efforts to get the necessary 50 member states that are needed for the TPNW to come into force…The human suffering across the Pacific from decades of exposure to nuclear weapons testing remains one of the most painful legacies of our colonial past. Pacific Islanders have for generations suffered from health consequences that arise from the destruction and contamination of their ecosystems; and from the forced relocation from their ancestral lands to make way for nuclear testing”.

Fiji joins other Pacific states that have already signed and ratified the TPNW, including New Zealand, Vanuatu, Samoa, Palau, Kiribati, and Cook Islands. In contrast, the Morrison government in Australia is opposed to the TPNW, maintaining its support for the US alliance and extended nuclear deterrence.

75 years on from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pacific Conference of Churches has joined religious leaders from across Australia, writing to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call on the Australian government to act.

“Nuclear arms control agreements are expiring, languishing or collapsing”, they write. “We are heartened by the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Negotiated by a majority of nations, the new treaty champions collective security beyond nuclear weapons…Australia claims to support nuclear disarmament yet, to our deep disappointment, our nation remains outside the TPNW. As people of faith across Australia, we join together in one voice to urge the Australian Government to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”

This article draws on “Grappling with the Bomb”, a history of nuclear testing and Pacific nuclear survivors by Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan.

Hope on labour mobility

There's good news for Vanuatu’s seasonal workers this week with the announcement that 170 workers will be able to go to Australia for the mango season.

The workers will go to the Northern Territory in a pilot program designed to meet industry shortages.

National Farmers’ Federation Chief Executive Officer, Tony Mahar says it’s a “pragmatic decision”. Under the arrangement, eligible workers must return a negative COVID-19 test before departing and be required to self-isolate for 14-days after arriving in Australia, before commencing work. Mango farmers will also have to show that they are unable to secure local workers.

“No one wants to see fruit and vegetables wasted and this trial will help make sure that doesn’t happen," Australian agriculture minister David Littleproud says. “This trial will see up to 170 workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme come to Australia to help with the 2020 harvest, with more workers to potentially follow subject to a review of the first cohort and approval for additional numbers by the NT Government.”

Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are eligible to participate in the Pacific Labour Scheme. It’s unclear at this stage, which of these nations may send workers to the Northern Territory if the trial goes well and it is extended.

Labour mobility programs are a likely topic of discussion at the Pacific Island Forum Economics Ministers Meeting (FEMM) next week as both hosting countries (Australia and New Zealand) and supplying countries are FEMM participants.

The Director of the Development Policy  Centre at the Australian National University, Stephen Howes says Pacific governments need to be prepared to let their workers leave for seasonal work. Similarly, New Zealand-based research fellow, Charlotte Bedford says there will be a demand for labour for the approaching season (September/October) but there are still a number of logistical questions to be addressed such as which workers will be employed (e.g. those who may have just returned or those who have missed out on deployment), and who pays for quarantine.

“When workers return at the moment, our current quarantine requires they will have to self-isolate in a quarantine facility for two weeks and employers are very keen to get in place a work bubble so that workers can go back to the work site and quarantine on the work site and start straight away,” Bedford says.

University of the South Pacific Senior Economist Neelesh Goundar believes there would be an appetite for this work from Fijians.

“ If organised well and if it’s targeted well, there certainly will be lots of workers who will be willing to go and work until the Fiji economy rebounds or tourism opens…if something can be implemented sooner [rather] than later, that would go a long way to helping households, especially those who have lost jobs here in Fiji.”

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor has declined to comment on the negotiations over her successor as head of the regional organisation, saying only “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it right up until the last day which is the 15th of January.”

Dame Meg made the comments in the leadup to the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting next week. Economics officials are meeting this week in preparation for the main proceedings.

Islands Business understands there are currently five contenders for the position of Secretary General; Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Marshall Islands Ambassador to the US, Gerald Zackios, Tonga's international civil servant and development economist,  Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua; former Pacific Community (SPC) Secretary General, Solomon Islander Dr Jimmie Rodgers and former Fiji Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

The change in leadership will come at a critical time; as Pacific Islands meet the economic, health and social challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, manage the sometimes conflicting priorities and activities of development partners in the region, and endeavour to keep climate change action and the “Blue Pacific” narrative at the top of the agenda, all while keeping regionalism alive.

Tuvalu, as Chair of the Forum, had suggested the vote for the new Director General be deferred until next year, but there seems to be little appetite for that amongst other Forum members. Dame Meg says the Forum Chair is still consulting with members on the matter.

Last week the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, Maureen Penjueli said with Vanuatu’s deferral of the Forum Chairmanship until next year, Dame Meg’s imminent departure and the recent departure of her deputy, Cristelle Pratt for the ACP Secretariat, “we are now operating in a leadership vacuum around who is going to champion leadership in the Pacific.

“I think leadership, visionary leadership is quite critical right now.”

Penjueli says it’s important to understand “where regional leadership lies to deal with a whole lot of issues. Whether its unemployment, whether it’ movement of people, whether its debt, whether it’s financing, where and who will champion the Pacific.”

Most recently, Forum  members have cooperated effectively  through the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway to move COVID testing kits, personal protection equipment, supplies, personnel and repatriated citizens through the region. Yet the vote for the Secretary General has the potential to raise tensions. Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau Jr has already plainly stated that that ‘it’s Micronesia’s turn’ and last year the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and Palau all said they supported Ambassador Zackios’ candidacy.

Traditionally a Fijian Secretary General would be an unusual appointment, as Fiji hosts the Forum Secretariat, although Ratu Inoke is well known to regional leaders as a former Foreign and Defence Minister. He represented Fiji at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Samoa in 2017,  in 2016 in Pohnpei, FSM and in PNG in 2015.

While Dame Meg wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics of the SG vote, she did say that she personally felt “I’ve not driven hard enough about issues  on women and public participation of women in public life and also at senior levels of the regional bureaucracies,” noting her two former female Deputy Secretary Generals had now departed. She says unless a woman is elected as Secretary General (and the only female candidate is Tonga’s Siamomua), the organisation will be very much driven by men in the senior positions.

“I don’t believe that I have invested enough in young women that are coming through the organisation. I still have six months left and what I am doing is working closely with our human resources people. It’s not about their training, it’s not about their technical abilities, it’s about confidence. It’s about the confidence to be able to give an opinion and to be able to back it up,” Dame Meg

The Pacific today faces three crises: a health crisis, an economic crisis and the ongoing climate crisis, and Pacific Islands Forum Economic Ministers will discuss all three when they meet (virtually) next week.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded the scale of the economic impact on Pacific people and communities has become clearer – and Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor says for some it is ‘catastrophic’.

Increased hunger, malnutrition and poverty is being reported by civil society organisations. Job losses, business failures and plummeting remittances are telling and industries such as the tourism sector face the prospect of decades in recovery. Governments are scrambling to put in place safety nets and cope with staggeringly bad COVID-related economic forecasts.

Dame Meg says it is time to think out of the box and act regionally.

She understands the tendency by Pacific countries to turn inwards during the pandemic.

“It is only natural when something like this happens,” she told reporters ahead of the Forum Economic Ministers’ meeting.

“We …look at what is happening to myself, what is happening to my family, what is happening to my friends, what is happening in my community, what is happening in my country.

Dame Meg Taylor says the ministers will focus on economic priorities to contain the spread of COVID-19 and recover from the pandemic to build “a strong platform for economic stability and resilience in the long term.”

She stressed the need for new and innovative approaches to development challenges based on self-reliance, pointing to the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway as an example of effective Pacific collective action.

“It is the only region in the world that has done this. And why is this important? Because it is the political space, making sure that the technical assistance can get in, medical assistance can get in, we can ship cargo and customs can be adhered to, that we can repatriate citizens, we can land aircraft, immigration facilities are all in place, and trying to make this work is no mean feat, as you will understand.”

Dame Meg is encouraging Forum members to look beyond their national boundaries, and for development partners to think beyond bilateralism, in order to facilitate “better and deeper coordination and collaboration.”

“It is, I think it is honest for me to say, that the development partners have really approached COVID with a very much bi-lateral approach. And we have watched this, and we have watched the geo-strategic issues play out.”

Dame Meg says the Forum and other regional organisations are also looking at digitalisation as a priority; to survey what infrastructure is in place or coming online plus prices and accessibility,  and then explore how it can support the digital economy, health, education and other development goals.

“ I think that it is an opportunity that we need to look at. I know that development banks like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are looking at this through Southeast Asia  and other countries.  We have asked them to have a conversation with us in terms of what can be done in this region.

“But everything costs money and everything that we get from banks, unless it is coming from the International Development Assistance in the World Bank, everything will one day have to be paid back.   This  is  the big issue for us in the region on how we are going to be able to service this debt over time.”

A paper on the Pacific’s own climate-infrastructure fund, the Pacific Resilience Facility, —with added  content on the COVID pandemic—is also going to ministers. The Facility aims to raise US$1.5 billion and fund small projects  through the interest generated.

“It is really important that we start thinking of how we can help ourselves, “ Dame Meg says.

“I think that there is a huge tendency in the International Development space every document that you pick up is about how much the Pacific relies on everybody else to do things for them.  

“You know I am really sick of that!  I'm sure that a lot of you who have worked around this are also tired of it too. It is not as if we are people who  do not know how to look after ourselves but wherever they have been good ideas put forward,  it is amazing how people think that ‘oh why did you think of that?’  And this is exactly the kind of resistance that we got on this from some of the development banks; we are doing that so why would you want to do it? 

“We have got to start helping our countries get systems in place in countries where we can maximise funding that comes in so that countries can help themselves.”

Dame Meg acknowledges that thinking outside the box and building on the regional identity of the ‘Blue Pacific’ continent - launched by leaders in 2017 - is not always easy.

Sharing of experiences of individuals and of countries is important.

“I hope that this is what Forum Economic Ministers will do – to discuss and share their experiences and support each other,” she said.

Forum Economic officials meet this week, with the Ministerial due to open on Tuesday next week.

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