Before we get too much further into 2020, here is a look back at six of the stories that stood out for me in 2019 …
1. United Nations Secretary General visits the Pacific
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Gutteres, visited the region in May. He spent time in New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu. The main focus of the visit was on the impacts of climate change with an opportunity to acknowledge the leadership of Pacific leaders in the realm of global climate diplomacy. This visit was a curtain raiser to the Global Climate Summit that the Secretary General hosted later in the year. In Fiji he met with Pacific Islands Forum leaders, stressing the importance of removing subsidies for fossil fuels and moving away from coal as key aspects of how the objectives of the Paris agreement could be met. Whilst in Vanuatu, Gutteres was asked about human rights abuses in West Papua. His responses were not considered satisfactory, with nothing much offered about what future progress could be realistically expected within the United Nations.
2. Torres Strait Islanders take Australian government to the United Nations
Also in May, a group of people from the Torres Strait Islands lodged a claim against the Federal Government of Australia with the United Nations Human Rights Committee. They argue that the government’s failure to act meaningfully in relation to mitigating climate change has constituted a breach of their human rights to life, family and culture. This action is groundbreaking in the Australian context. However, it is part of a growing body of climate litigation around the world. And it is possible that the Pacific will be the focus of future actions of this type. The government of Vanuatu has already stated that it will examine options that are available to take legal action against countries and corporations that are big emitters. Pacific students, led by those studying law at the University of the South Pacific are also very active in this space.
3. Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meeting
The leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum met in Funafuti, Tuvalu, in August. It was the first time attending for the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had declined to attend last year shortly after taking office. Hosting such a large event was a major undertaking for the government and people of Tuvalu. Everyone played a part, and delegates reported that the sharing of Tuvaluan culture was a highlight of the event. A significant addition to the line-up was Prime Minister Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama who has not attended these meetings for a number of years. The issue of climate change mitigation proved to be a flashpoint between Australia and the island countries. The Leaders’ retreat ran well into the night as the leaders sought to arrive at an agreed text for the final communique. The next meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders will be in Vanuatu.
4. Solomon Islands and Kiribati switch diplomatic allegiance
Taiwan’s diplomatic standing in the Pacific islands region, and globally, took a serious knock in September as both Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their allegiance to the People’s Republic of China. This left Taiwan recognised by only 15 countries across the globe, four of which are in the Pacific. The move in Solomon Islands had been the topic of much discussion since the elections in April, which saw Manasseh Sogavare returned to the Prime Ministership. Shortly after the announcement of the switch was made, Sogavare visited Beijing and there have already been announcements of infrastructure developments that will be funded by China, including support for hosting of the Pacific games in 2023. However, concerns still remain around the process by which this major decision was made, including allegations of parliamentary bribes. Kiribati is not new to the world of shifting alliances, having previously been an ally of China (1980 – 2003) before switching to Taiwan in 2003.
5. Bougainville referendum
In November a referendum was held to determine the future of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. This was the culmination of the peace process that brought an end to a decade of civil conflict in the 1980s/90s. Preparations for the poll were extensive, including making arrangements for people to vote overseas, in Solomon Islands and Australia—a first for PNG. Although there was some concern about whether the referendum process would be successful, including having the date of the vote postponed earlier in the year, all went very smoothly during the two-week voting period. The turnout was in excess of 80% and 97.7% of those who took part voted for independence over the alternative of ‘greater autonomy’. The referendum is non-binding. After a period of negotiation between the governments of PNG and Bougainville, the final say goes to the Parliament of Papua New Guinea.
6. Measles epidemic
The end of 2019 was marked by a measles epidemic that affected several countries in the region. Although Tonga, Fiji, and other countries were affected to a degree, the most serious impacts were felt in Samoa. More than 5,600 people were infected with the disease, which is approximately 2.8% of the population of the country. There were 81 deaths, with the majority of those being children aged under four years old. The country imposed a state of emergency which saw schools closed early, public events cancelled, and a mass immunisation program. International assistance was provided to support Samoan health workers. The infection is thought to have spread to Samoa from New Zealand, where there was a serious outbreak. The situation was made worse by an incredibly low rate of vaccination in Samoa. There have been calls for an inquiry into how the crisis was handled by the authorities.
Tess Newton Cain is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute.