Oceania Theater

New Caledonia voters reject independence —for now

In an independence referendum that drew record numbers to the polls Nov. 4, voters in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia voted 56 to 44 percent to remain a French territory. The referendum marked a major milestone in an independence movement that has spanned decades. Political leaders initially agreed in 1988 to hold a vote on independence after a 10-year period of economic and social development. Subsequent negotiations extended the deadline to the end of the 2014-2018 session of the New Caledonian Congress. The final details were settled this past spring when legislators adopted eight criteria to determine who would be eligible to participate in the referendum. While the 80% turnout and 12-point margin against independence led some observers to declare a decisive victory for the loyalist movement, the future of the archipelago is still uncertain. French law allows for the possibility of a second and third referendum if the first results in a vote against independence. To organize another referendum, pro-independence groups would have to secure the support of one third of the membership of the New Caledonian Congress, who could then petition the High Commissioner. Such a petition may be submitted as early as six months from the date of the first referendum.

Climate change 'single greatest threat' to Pacific

The 18 member states of the Pacific Islands Forum held their 49th summit in Nauru, issuing a statement (PDFi) Sept. 6 asserting that "climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of Pacific people." The leaders "reaffirmed the importance of immediate urgent action to combat climate change" and committed "to ensure effective progress on Pacific priorities with regards to the Paris Agreement" through the development of a guide. Leaders at the Forum also urged all countries to comply fully with their commitments to mitigate emissions, "including through the development and transfer of renewable energy," within their committed timeframes. The leaders also "called on the United States to return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change."

Korea nuclear crisis spurs Guam independence bid

With North Korea's apparent testing of its first (or perhaps second) hydrogen bomb yesterday, the White House is again warning of a "massive military response." Last week, North Korea for the first time fired a missile over Japanese land territory, specifically the northern island of Hokkaido, and last month for the first time tested an apparent intercontinental ballistic missile. (NYT, NYT, AP) Pyongyang's threat to launch missiles toward Guam put the unincorporated US island territory briefly in the news—although the actual threat was to fire into waters some 40 kilometers off Guam. (AP) Pyongyang has threatened to strike Guam before, but now looks as if it may be developing the capability to make good on its threat. Amid all the hype, just a few stories have made note of how Guamians themselves are reacting to all this. And growing sentiment on the island holds that the only thing they are getting out of their current US territorial status is being made a nuclear target.

Indigenous resistance halts Bougainville mine

The push to re-open a controversial copper mine on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville was halted after indigenous residents blocked roads to prevent officials from going to the mine site and signing new agreements with landowners. The Panguna mine was abandoned by Australian-owned Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) in 1989 after disaffection from landowners escalated to an armed uprising and a push for independence from Papua New Guinea. The president and cabinet of the Autonomous Bougainville Government had planned to go to the Panguna site to sign an agreement that would allow BCL to resume work at the mine. But so-called "hardline" opponents, led by angry women, blocked the road and demanded the government and company abandon their plans. (Radio Australia, June 17)

Australia using Nauru as 'open-air prison'

Australia is using the island of Nauru as an "open-air prison," putting refugees and asylum seekers through an abusive processing system as a means to prevent immigration, according to a report (PDF) released by Amnesty International Oct. 17. The report charges that Australia has ignored the 1951 Refugee Convention (PDF) by subjecting asylum seekers and refugees to "egregious abuses," essentially trapping them on the remote island. The report includes dozens of interviews with refugees, documenting claims of mental health issues, suicide attempts and attacks at the hands of Nauru citizens. It describes inadequate and often "deeply humiliating and traumatizing" medical treatment, and abuses carried out against children, including physical abuse from staff contracted by Australia, and the denial of their right to education. The report calls upon the Australian government to ensure the safety and well-being of refugees, and increase access to existing migration programs.

World Court turns down nuclear arms case

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Oct. 5 refused (PDF) to hear a claim by the Marshall Islands that the UK, India and Pakistan have failed to halt the nuclear arms race, finding that it does not have jurisdiction over the matter. The Marshall Islands was the site for numerous nuclear tests carried out by the US during the Cold War arms race, and claims that such experience allows it to testify on the danger of a nuclear arms race. The nation accused nine countries of not complying with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation (PDF). However, the ICJ can only consider the cases for Britain, India and Pakistan, as China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia and the US have not recognized the court's jurisdiction. The Marshall Islands claims that these countries have breached their obligations under the treaty, which commits all states with nuclear capabilities "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

Australia to close Manus Island detention center

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announced Aug. 17 that the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea plan to close the controversial Manus Island detention center. Since 2012 Australia has sent asylum seekers to offshore detention centers where they have been subjected to inhumane treatment. Human rights groups have brought light to the physical and sexual abuse faced by these individuals, which has created pressure for reform. Although there has been an agreement to close the center, Australia continues to state it will refuse to accept the detainees held there. There is no time frame on the process, which has led to skepticism.

Papua New Guinea rules 'Australia's Gitmo' illegal

The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled April 26 that Australia's detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island in northern Papua New Guinea is illegal. The court found that the detention center violates article 42 of Papua New Guinea's constitution, which guarantees personal liberty. The court ordered both governments to take steps to end the detention. Australia's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection said  that the ruling, "does not alter Australia's border protection policies—they remain unchanged. No one who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat will settle in Australia." There are currently about 850 detainees on Manus Island, half of whom have been determined to be refugees.

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