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Renewed interest or self-interest in the Pacific?

Minh Nguyen

October 2004

Former Uniya researcher, Eve Lester
Photo: Amnesty International Australia

This year’s Amnesty International Australia conference in Brisbane on 4-5 September, attended by Uniya’s director Patty Fawkner and researcher Minh Nguyen, was on the topic of human rights in the Pacific region. The conference considered a range of challenges to human rights facing the region, including military interventions and peacekeeping, arms control and climate change, violence against women and the role of religion, uprooted and displaced people, and the consequences of HIV/AIDS.

The conference was both timely and relevant. It convened just days after the first 19 of more than 200 Australian Federal Police officers arrived in Papua New Guinea (PNG) as part of Australia’s $800 million program to tackle chronic security problems in the country. The Federal Police’s arrival in PNG is the second major Australian intervention of this kind in a Pacific neighbour in as many years and puts beyond doubt Australia’s new proactive policy approach in the Pacific following years of apparent neglect.

Many Pacific islanders and representatives of Pacific organisations were among the participants, including Greg Urwin, the former Australian diplomat who was selected in August 2003 amid controversy as the general secretary of the Pacific Islands Forum. Breaking an unwritten law that excluded non-islanders from running the region’s key intergovernmental body, Urwin’s appointment exemplifies Australia’s new assertiveness in the Pacific. Urwin’s appointment also symbolises the complex love-hate relationship the Pacific states have with Australia – Pacific leaders may have opposed Urwin’s selection but they knew that there was no better candidate for the job.

Islander participants at the conference generally viewed Australia’s initial intervention to restore law and order in The Solomon Islands as being positive. Workshop presenter Siosiua Po’oi Pohiva from Tonga argued that Australia, as the dominant player in the region, has responsibility to assist struggling island states. Pohiva appeared to be optimistic about the outcome of Australia’s new Pacific engagement and the potential for Australia to play a more effective role in promoting good governance in the troubled region.

While everyone is in favour of good governance generally, the devil is in the detail. One of the concerns with Australia’s good governance agenda for the Pacific has been its encroaching insistence on “reforms” aimed at liberalising Pacific economies, including the rationalisation of services and radical land tenure reform. Neva Wendt from the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) argued that Australia’s prescription for the Pacific’s ills assumes universality – if it works in one place it should work in another. That one pill cures all strategy ignores the politically and culturally diverse, unique and complex circumstances of each island society.

While most participants welcomed Australia’s renewed interest in the region, Australia came under criticism for what is perceived to be insensitivity and less than noble intentions. More than any other issue, Australia’s “Pacific Solution” to a perceived domestic border problem raises the spectre of a colonial master using money and power to get what it wants without regard for the problems it imposes on island communities. Similarly, Australia’s intervention in the Solomon Islands, after four years of ignoring calls for help, seems to have been motivated by Australia’s own security and national interests as much as it was a response to the concern of a neighbour in need.

Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty pointed out in his address that Australia’s own people have often been part of the problem, and not the solution, in the Pacific. Eve Lester, former Uniya researcher, argued that Australia has the capacity to influence the region either positively or negatively. Australia will no doubt maintain a leading role in the Pacific for years to come. The difference between a negative and positive influence in the region is the difference between an Australia that obsessively pursues national interest outcomes and one that has the courage to lead responsibly, sensitively and by example.

Minh Nguyen is a researcher, Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

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