Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

SOUTH PACIFIC: New Bottles, Old Wine for Island Nations Forum

Debbie Singh

SUVA, Aug 14 2002 (IPS) - Foreign aid, climate change and self-determination are expected to dominate the agenda of Pacific Island Forum leaders, who are preparing to sit down for region-wide talks on Friday.

The environmental activist group Greenpeace has released a report to coincide with the regional forum that is critical of foreign aid practices, which they argue give donor countries an unfair advantage over domestic policy making and threatens the environment.

The report, ‘Turning the Tide: Towards a Pacific Solution to Conditional Aid,’ looks at how aid has hampered local efforts to manage fisheries, nuclear shipments and toxic contamination.

The launch comes at a time when leaders of all 16 Forum member countries, including regional heavyweights Australia and New Zealand, will be in the country. It will also give Pacific Island delegates and aid donor countries food for thought before they sit down for scheduled talks Tuesday next week.

The report raises questions about the direction that external aid is taking in the Pacific, particularly in terms of ‘tied aid’ which Greenpeace says has political, rather than developmental strings attached, and which is geared towards furthering the interests of donor nations rather than recipient countries.

Australia, Taiwan, Japan, the United States and some European countries are cited as abusers of foreign aid who seek to trade-off aid for greater access to the region’s natural resources and passage through its oceans.

“Aid of course, is never free. It is a kind of indebtedness. You do not actually have to pay back the aid given to you in cash or in kind, you are required to follow certain guidelines to stay eligible for your aid. This is called conditionality à sometimes it is called tied aid,” said co-author of the report Teresia Teiawa, a Fiji academic based in Wellington, New Zealand.

The report accuses Japan of offering 10 million U.S. dollars in “guilt money” to Pacific Islands to guard against any ‘mishaps’ occurring from the recent shipment of plutonium fuel from Japan through Pacific waters.

Nuclear waste has been shipped from Japan to Britain since 1970 but the traffic has been more frequent during the 1990s.

Greenpeace is calling on Pacific Island leaders to withstand the pressures of some post-Forum dialogue partners and aid donors and is asking for an outright ban on nuclear shipments through the region.

“I urge you all to note the invisible struggle that is going on over the next week,” said Greenpeace Pacific executive director Peter Mullins.

Already one senior Fijian official has come out saying that he is hopeful Friday’s talks will produce a strongly worded resolution against countries involved in shipping nuclear waste.

“It may not look very important to the shipping nations, but for the Pacific, you have one of these ships land on our reef,” said Ratu Isoa Navidi, permanent secretary of Fiji’s ministry of foreign affairs.

“And now with September the 11th you’ve got other forms of possible terrorism that could strike one of the ships, and so the concerns are heightened,” he added.

Regional opposition is also expected to test Australia’s refusal to sign-off on the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement that binds industrialised countries to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases but lost some steam when the United States pulled out of it.

Some delegates say Australia’s position is counter to the common interest of limiting climate change.

In a joint statement on the Kyoto Protocol issued by leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) at last year’s Forum in Nauru, MSG leaders said that Australia’s emission of greenhouse gases is amongst the highest in the region.

They expressed “deep concern over Australia’s reluctance to make a positive commitment on the issue which is of critical concern to Pacific Island Countries”.

If a split should occur during the Forum meeting, it is likely to be over a difference on opinion between Australia and the Pacific Islands view on signature of Kyoto, as well as who will be next in line to head the Fiji-based Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Nominations have been received from most Forum Island Countries, with Canberra putting forward Greg Urwin, former Australian High Commissioner to Fiji.

The secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Papua New Guinean Noel Levi on Sunday predicted a split amongst countries should Australia put the name of their candidate forward this week. However, he has since refused to clarify his comment saying that it is “a dead issue”.

Despite his stony silence, Levi’s comments have been supported by the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, which says the appointment of an Australian to the top spot threatens the future of the 32-year old organisation.

Also hoping to get their issue on the agenda is a six-member team from West Papua (Irian Jaya) who hope to get Forum leaders to support the province’s quest for independence from Indonesia.

The team plans to ask the Forum to facilitate an International Joint Conference of interested parties to address the independence issue, to call on Indonesia to halt its military operations in West Papua and to send a fact-finding mission there.

“We know that Australia and Papua New Guinea will not be receptive to our position (on independence), particularly after East Timor. However, we hope that other regional governments like Vanuatu, Nauru and Tuvalu will support our case as they have in the past,” said Rex Rumakiek, of the ‘Organisasi Papua Merdeka’ (Free West Papua Movement).

The delegation is confident that a Pacific Island position on a solution for West Papua would encourage the United Nations and the United States to change their hesitance to take up the subject.

“We don’t see the Forum’s support of West Papuan independence as affecting its relationship with other Forum Island Countries or influencing other countries such as Bougainville,” Francis Mirino of the West Papua New Guinea National Congress said.

“We want to challenge the international community and the South Pacific Forum to support our cause. We have one voice and one aim, and we are supported by the grassroots people,” said Herman Wainggai of the West Papuan National Students Union.

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