Nauru’s fraught Pa­cific re­la­tions ex­posed

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray.

As host of this week’s Pa­cific Is­lands

Fo­rum, Nauru faced un­com­fort­able questions about its com­pro­mised re­la­tion­ship with Aus­tralia and cen­sure of its stance to­wards China.

This week, in recog­ni­tion of Nauru’s

50th an­niver­sary of in­de­pen­dence, the mi­crostate hosted the re­gion’s prin­ci­pal po­lit­i­cal meet­ing, the an­nual Pa­cific Is­lands Fo­rum. Within a day, the con­fer­ence ex­posed the re­gion’s ten­sions and anx­i­eties: on cli­mate change, Chi­nese in­flu­ence, Aus­tralia’s off­shore de­ten­tion and the host’s au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. Within 48 hours, those ten­sions had be­come re­al­ity: Nauru was feud­ing with China, had de­tained a New Zealand jour­nal­ist for in­ter­view­ing refugees, and had been con­demned by the Samoan leader for re­fus­ing to stamp the pass­ports of Chi­nese diplo­mats. Mean­while, one del­e­gate told me the is­sues of cli­mate change – the “most sig­nif­i­cant se­cu­rity is­sue for us” – and Nauru’s aban­don­ment of trans­parency and ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence had been buried.

The Pa­cific Is­lands Fo­rum be­gan in 1971, and now com­prises 18 mem­bers, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia. There are as many “di­a­logue part­ners”, in­clud­ing China, the Euro­pean Union and the United States. In 2000, the fo­rum rat­i­fied the Biketawa Dec­la­ra­tion, a re­gional se­cu­rity agree­ment made after that year’s Fi­jian coup, which obliged mu­tual as­sis­tance in times of po­lit­i­cal un­rest or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. This week, del­e­gates ex­panded its frame­work but, as one del­e­gate told me, re­gional se­cu­rity means dif­fer­ent things to the Pa­cific Is­lands than it does



to Aus­tralia. While Aus­tralia em­pha­sises mar­itime sur­veil­lance and hedges against China, the del­e­gate said, the Pa­cific Is­lands – some of the least pol­lut­ing coun­tries in the world, but some of the most im­per­illed by ris­ing ocean lev­els – are very con­cerned about cli­mate change.

Nauru’s prepa­ra­tion for the fo­rum in­cluded de­mol­ish­ing one of the “top side” im­mi­gra­tion camps in Nauru’s cen­tre and mov­ing a large con­tin­gent of asy­lum seek­ers to An­abar in the coun­try’s north.

Prepa­ra­tion also in­cluded lim­it­ing the me­dia’s pres­ence. Some of this,

Nauru said, owed to sheer lo­gis­tics – the coun­try is the size of Mel­bourne Air­port, and has only a few ho­tels – but was oth­er­wise man­dated by con­tempt and sus­pi­cion for much of Aus­tralia’s press. In July, Nauru’s prime min­is­ter, Baron Waqa, de­clared that no ABC staff would be granted a visa to at­tend the fo­rum, be­cause of “this or­gan­i­sa­tion’s bla­tant in­ter­fer­ence in Nauru’s do­mes­tic pol­i­tics prior to the 2016 elec­tion, ha­rass­ment of and lack of re­spect to­wards our pres­i­dent in Aus­tralia, false and defam­a­tory al­le­ga­tions against mem­bers of our govern­ment, and con­tin­ued bi­ased and false re­port­ing about our coun­try”.

This obliged some softly mouthed re­gret from Aus­tralia’s then prime min­is­ter, Mal­colm Turn­bull, and a boy­cott from much of Aus­tralia’s me­dia. News Corp did, how­ever, send re­porters. This week, at the “pre-fo­rum me­dia work­shop”, Waqa lec­tured the gath­ered jour­nal­ists: “As gate­keep­ers, you ul­ti­mately mould and con­duct what is be­ing pub­lished to the masses, ul­ti­mately shap­ing their views and opin­ions of the world whether gos­sip or fact. With the fast-de­vel­op­ing world of so­cial me­dia and wannabe jour­nal­ists, the lines that dis­tin­guish real jour­nal­ism and base­less or fake news be­come blurred. As jour­nal­ists you need to be the re­li­able source of re­li­able and fac­tual news for the peo­ple.”

The speech was a typ­i­cally con­de­scend­ing mix of flat­tery and threat, be­fore Waqa itemised “fields” of in­ter­est for the me­dia. The list didn’t in­clude refugees or Nau­ruan democ­racy.

Two days later, TVNZ jour­nal­ist Bar­bara Dreaver was de­tained by lo­cal police after in­ter­view­ing refugees out­side a lo­cal restau­rant. The Satur­day Pa­per con­tacted a num­ber of wit­nesses who de­scribed two police of­fi­cers in­ter­ven­ing and de­mand­ing the cam­era be turned off, be­fore con­fis­cat­ing phones and de­mand­ing to see the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of refugees. “We wanted to start an in­ter­view, then police ar­rived and asked her to turn off the cam­era and show ID,” one wit­ness said. “And then a po­lice­man took her car and the other police of­fi­cer went to him and I talked to him, but the police came quickly and took my phone and her phone and [said] she had be­haved badly. Maybe we should have been se­cretly in­ter­viewed.”

Dreaver’s me­dia ac­cred­i­ta­tion was re­voked but was re­in­stated on Wed­nes­day – the day the New Zealand prime min­is­ter ar­rived. Be­fore it was, the Nau­ruan govern­ment de­nied Dreaver had been de­tained: she had, in fact, been “vol­un­tar­ily” as­sist­ing au­thor­i­ties, and the whole mat­ter was about the reporter breach­ing visa con­di­tions that had been de­signed for her, and her sub­jects’, safety. Dreaver would later say: “For the record, I did not vol­un­tar­ily ac­com­pany the police. They or­dered me to turn off the cam­era, con­fis­cated my phone for three to four hours, told me I had breached visa con­di­tions, said they were tak­ing me to the police sta­tion and or­dered me into the police ve­hi­cle. They were pro­fes­sional through­out the en­tire process, but it was not vol­un­tary.”

The Satur­day Pa­per spoke with a num­ber of refugees this week, many of whom had been trans­ferred to the north­ern camp. They felt that the Nau­ruan govern­ment were ea­ger to hide them. “Some refugees work­ing, they didn’t let work be­cause the fo­rum peo­ple will be there so they stopped them from work un­til the fo­rum fin­ish. I said if they could bury us alive un­til the fo­rum [fin­ishes] they will,” one refugee told me.

“Some Nau­ruan told me, ‘With­out you guys we have noth­ing’,” she said, aware of Nauru’s heavy re­liance upon Aus­tralia’s off­shore pro­cess­ing for rev­enue.

An­other refugee told me: “I got a job here, I saved some money for rainy days but it’s not the life we were look­ing for. It’s been six years we are away from our fam­ily and still in limbo. We need to be out of dark side, we need to break the monotony of our daily life.

“I’m grad­u­ated in in­dus­trial power and I’m work­ing here as a elec­tri­cian but the wage in Nauru is low and work­ing here is a kind of servi­tude. I’m kind of ex­pert who is good at elec­tri­cal, but my wage is about $5 an hour. My wife is agri­cul­ture en­gi­neer but there is no job for her here, so she feels to be use­less.”

Not for the first time has Nauru found it­self both the be­dev­illed min­now and sly ben­e­fi­ciary of global cur­rents. It is one of just 16 coun­tries that for­mally recog­nises Tai­wan. This diplo­matic recog­ni­tion be­gan in 1980 and con­tin­ued un­til 2002, when for­mal ties were trans­ferred to the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China. Just three years later, a new Nau­ruan govern­ment re­newed its con­spic­u­ous and prof­itable al­liance with Taipei.

It’s an old game in the Pa­cific.

Small, iso­lated and eco­nom­i­cally frag­ile coun­tries have ex­changed for­mal recog­ni­tion of sovereignty for money. In 2009, less than a year after the brief Russo– Ge­or­gian War, Nauru be­came just the fourth coun­try in the world to for­mally recog­nise Abk­hazia and South Os­se­tia – parts of Ge­or­gia oc­cu­pied by Rus­sian forces. Nauru was joined by Nicaragua, Venezuela and, un­sur­pris­ingly, Rus­sia. At the time, the Ge­or­gian min­is­ter for rein­te­gra­tion said: “The recog­ni­tion of Abk­hazia’s in­de­pen­dence by Nauru is more like com­edy – it changes noth­ing in the in­ter­na­tional arena.”

But it did change Nauru’s na­tional ac­counts and of­fered a legal av­enue for Rus­sian pa­tron­age where pre­vi­ous il­le­git­i­mate ones had closed. In 2001, the in­de­pen­dent Fi­nan­cial Ac­tion Task Force on Money Laun­der­ing, work­ing within the OECD, found ev­i­dence that bil­lions of Rus­sian mob dol­lars were be­ing laun­dered in Nauru – specif­i­cally through 450 “off­shore banks” that were all reg­is­tered to one govern­ment post-of­fice box. After the pas­sage of anti-money laun­der­ing leg­is­la­tion in 2004, Nauru was re­moved from an FATF black­list.

The fis­sures of that game, al­ready ob­vi­ous, were made es­pe­cially pub­lic this week when Nauru re­fused to stamp the diplo­matic pass­ports of the Chi­nese del­e­ga­tion, only per­mit­ting their en­try on their pri­vate doc­u­ments. This snub – obliged by Taipei’s pa­tron­age – was com­pounded when Waqa re­fused a Chi­nese diplo­mat the floor dur­ing a meet­ing. The del­e­gate loudly voiced his dis­plea­sure and left. Waqa later de­scribed him as “in­so­lent”.

Aus­tralia re­mains the Pa­cific re­gion’s largest donor but China is catch­ing up. By some es­ti­mates, it has com­mit­ted al­most $6 bil­lion to the re­gion in the past seven years – in­clud­ing a $3.5 bil­lion in­vest­ment in Pa­pua New Guinean in­fras­truc­ture last year. While Nauru doesn’t have diplo­matic re­la­tions with China, plenty of its neigh­bours de­pend upon it. This was the con­text of Nauru’s an­tag­o­nism, and the Samoan prime min­is­ter Tuilaepa Sailele Maliel­e­gaoi’s out­rage at it.

“Your uni­lat­eral ac­tion as Pres­i­dent of Nauru is a dan­ger­ous prece­dent that I be­lieve may not be ac­cepted by fo­rum lead­ers,” he wrote in a let­ter to Waqa. “The de­ci­sion taken by your govern­ment questions the in­tegrity, cred­i­bil­ity and foun­da­tion of our or­gan­i­sa­tion.”

Mean­while, a Nau­ruan an­ti­cor­rup­tion ad­vo­cate, Squire Jeremiah told me he was dis­ap­pointed by the

Pa­cific Is­lands Fo­rum. “I al­ways look at this sum­mit as a great op­por­tu­nity to be heard, where real core is­sues shall be dis­cussed, but it didn’t turn out the way I, or we, would have thought.”

But for all of the con­flict this week, the threat of cli­mate change proved one thing on which the del­e­gates could agree. In a re­vised re­gional se­cu­rity agree­ment, known as the Boe Dec­la­ra­tion, mem­bers as­serted that: “Recog­nis­ing that cli­mate change presents the sin­gle great­est threat to the liveli­hood, se­cu­rity and well­be­ing of Pa­cific peo­ple, lead­ers reaf­firmed the im­por­tance of im­me­di­ate ur­gent ac­tion to com­bat cli­mate change and com­mit­ted to sus­tained, high-level rep­re­sen­ta­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion in the lead up to, and at, 24th Con­fer­ence of Par­ties to the United Na­tions Frame­work on Cli­mate Change Con­ven­tion ... to en­sure ef­fec­tive progress on Pa­cific pri­or­i­ties with re­gards to the Paris Agree­ment, par­tic­u­larly the de­vel­op­ment of the Rule Book and Guide­lines for im­ple­ment­ing the Paris Agree­ment, build­ing on the Talanoa Di­a­logue.”

All 18 mem­bers were sig­na­to­ries, but Aus­tralia – whose govern­ment has no mech­a­nism for emis­sions re­duc­tion and for whom en­ergy pol­icy ex­ists as a third rail – worked be­hind the scenes to mas­sage the lan­guage of the dec­la­ra­tion. The ABC re­ported that Aus­tralia re­fused to sign a dec­la­ra­tion ask­ing for the “ur­gent ac­cel­er­a­tion” of emis­sions re­duc­tion.

For all that, the sur­viv­ing lan­guage on cli­mate change was mus­cu­lar – even if the fo­rum’s fi­nal com­mu­niqué was with­out men­tion of refugees and Nau­ruan au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. My con­ver­sa­tions with refugees this week were uni­formly cyn­i­cal. “They just want money,” one told me. “Nauru govern­ment only wants money. They make their hands dirty with Aus­tralian govern­ment, but they don’t

• care.”

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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