Aug 21, 2019 Last Updated 5:02 AM, Aug 16, 2019

By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu

Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has again called for a 10-year moratorium on sea-bed mining, at a time that many Pacific island nations are preparing for new frontiers of resource exploitation in the marine environment.

Speaking in Tuvalu this week before the 50th Pacific Islands Forum, Prime Minister Bainimarama called on fellow Forum island states to “support a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining from 2020 to 2030, which would allow for a decade of proper scientific research of our economic zones and territorial waters.”

There is growing pressure from French, Canadian and US corporations to advance the deep-sea mining (DSM) agenda, as well as interest from the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association. Just as energy corporations are looking towards deep-sea oil and gas reserves, companies are developing technology to exploit mineral ore deposits found on the ocean floor, including cobalt crusts, seafloor massive sulphides and ferromanganese nodules.

Fiji’s call for a moratorium comes as community groups across the region are campaigning against potential environmental hazards of deep-sea mining, especially to ecologically sensitive hydrothermal vents. A report from the Guam-based Blue Ocean Law argues: “There is a general failure to incorporate sufficient environmental protections, as well as the norm of free, prior, and informed consent for indigenous peoples, who are most likely to be impacted by DSM. In the 21st century, and under well-established norms of international law, these omissions represent serious violations of international legal obligations.”

Bainimarama’s call comes the same week as major restructuring of the Nautilus Minerals corporation, which has been planning to commence mining off the coast of Papua New Guinea, under a world-first licence issued by the PNG government.

Fiji and oceans policy

In recent years, Fiji has taken a leading role in ocean policy at the United Nations, working with other Forum island countries through the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group.

In June 2017, Fiji and Sweden co-hosted the high-level UN Conference on the Oceans and Seas in New York. This conference issued a call for action, highlighting action on ocean acidification, plastics, and overfishing. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed former Fiji UN Ambassador Peter Thomson as the UN Special Envoy on the Ocean.

This global campaigning is also translating into domestic legislation. Speaking in Tuvalu this week, Prime Minister Bainimarama said: “In addition to playing a leadership role in the global Ocean Pathway, we are also developing a National Oceans Policy, under which Fiji plans to move to a 100 per cent sustainable managed  Exclusive Economic Zone, with 30 per cent of this being earmarked as a marine protected area by no later than 2030.”

Under the Forum’s “Blue Pacific” agenda, island nations are seeking to draw the links between oceans and climate policy. Bainimarama noted that Fiji was working with the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership to develop “a blended and innovative finance structure to support the decarbonisation of domestic marine transportation fleets and facilities in Fiji and across the region. This means replacing inter-island ships with more efficient hybrid ships, thereby reducing fuel costs and emissions.”

Pacific DSM initiatives

Under the provisions of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), many Forum island countries with large EEZs have been in discussions with transnational corporations to partner in deep sea exploration for maritime resources. Under UNCLOS and the authority of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), developing countries can also partner with overseas corporations to licence exploration in “The Area”, international waters that include vast arrays of minerals in Pacific Ocean areas such as the Clarion-Clipperton zone.

Nauru has long been a champion of DSM – at last year’s Forum leaders’ meeting, Nauru President Baron Waqa hosted a side even with ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge and Samantha Smith, the former Head of Environment and Social Responsibility with the deep-sea mining corporation DeepGreen.

This new frontier has drawn in regional organisations, to address legal, technical and regulatory issues around DSM. Boundary limitation is a vital concern as Pacific nations seek to increase potential revenues from fisheries and seabed mining in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). From 2010-16, the European Union funded the Pacific Community (SPC) to develop model DSM legislation for Forum member states, with many civil society groups concerned this work was promoting rather than regulating DSM.

The SPC Maritime Boundaries Division has also been engaged in technical work to clarify borders between independent island states as well as with colonial powers like France and the United States (for example, Vanuatu and France have been involved in a decades-long dispute over Matthew and Hunter islands).

There are tensions between the administering powers and territorial governments over the control of seabed minerals in the remaining colonies in the region. With an EEZ of nearly 5 million square kilometres, ocean-floor resources could be vitally important for the newest Forum member, French Polynesia. However, as the French government moved to amend French Polynesia’s autonomy statue earlier this year, France’s constitutional court ruled that rare earths can be classified as “strategic metals”, which come under the control of the French State rather than the Government of French Polynesia.   

Independence leaders have long argued against the French State’s control of strategic metals, with former Senator for French Polynesia Richard Ariihau Tuheiava telling the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 2017: “We have continually emphasised the critical nature of the resource question as a core issue for our future development. Whether or not these resources are considered in Paris to be ‘strategic’ is irrelevant to the applicability of international legal decisions which place the ownership of natural resources with the people of the non-self-governing territories.”

Collapse of PNG initiative

Early initiatives to begin sea-bed mining in the Pacific have not come to fruition. This week’s set-back to a major project in Papua New Guinea provides a salutary warning about the complexity and potential costs of DSM.

Under a licence issued by the PNG government, Nautilus Minerals has long planned to mine seabed minerals beneath PNG’s Bismarck Sea. However, with widespread community resistance, falling share prices and the loss of a specialised support vessel, Nautilus constantly pushed out the date for commencement of mining.

In February this year, Nautilus filed for court protection from its creditors under the Canadian Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), and the Canadian-based company was later delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange. This week, major shareholders MB Holding and Metalloinvest have moved to take control of company assets at the expense of major creditors and smaller shareholders (The PNG Government holds 15 per cent equity in Nautilus’ PNG subsidiary and the Solwara 1 project through the company Eda Kopa).

The looming collapse of the Solwara seabed mining initiative has been welcomed by civil society groups in Papua New Guinea, which have been campaigning against potential adverse impacts on ocean ecology.

Jonathan Mesulam of PNG’s Alliance of Solwara Warriors stated: “We rejoiced when the company filed for protection from creditors in Canada. Our opposition and our court action have helped push it to that point. Communities across Papua New Guinea want to see the nightmare of deep-sea mining removed from PNG waters. We will re-double our efforts to ensure that the new Nautilus will never operate at Solwara 1.”

Fiji’s call for a moratorium on DSM will be debated in the corridors at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum, but there’s a way to go before all Forum member countries are willing to delay action on the supposed ocean El Dorado.

 

By Nic Maclellan (Islands Business magazine) in Funafuti, Tuvalu

Under “the New Pacific Diplomacy”, Pacific island governments are looking to international arenas to advance their regional agenda. Following successful diplomacy in global climate negotiations, Pacific diplomats are more active in multilateral debates about funding for development, ocean governance, climate finance and reform of public institutions, including United Nations agencies.

Pacific ambassadors at the United Nations (UN) in New York work together as the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) group, to advance their agenda without relying on traditional partners Australia and New Zealand. Within the UN system, Australia and New Zealand are members of the Western European and Other Group (WEOG), while the PSIDS have merged with the Asia Group. This membership of the large Asian bloc has been complemented by Fiji’s decision to join Vanuatu as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). These links mean island nations have achieved greater success in the G77+China, as well as a range of United Nations institutions.

Speaking at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2018, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine noted: “Small nations can have a unique role within the multilateral system. We would not have the UN Law of the Sea, or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and a great many other outcomes – but for the political will of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). We are a quarter of this body's membership.”

Closer ties with the United Nations

Over the last two years, the Pacific Islands Forum has sought to advance the region’s “Blue Pacific” agenda on climate, oceans and resource management, to ensure that the specific needs of SIDS are taken into account. The host of this week’s Forum leaders’ meeting, Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, argues: “We believe that all UN agencies should identity and develop special programs for SIDS.”

Outgoing Forum chair, President Baron Waqa of Nauru, has highlighted the difficulties for SIDS within the UN system. He told the 2018 session of the UNGA: “For the smallest countries – the micro-states – conventional pathways to development are not available to us. We simply cannot offer the profit potential that private investors are seeking. Therefore, we must look to public institutions – to the United Nations – to create an environment in which the rest of us can grow and prosper.”

Since his appointment in January 2017, UN Secretary General António Guterres has announced an ambitious program of reform of the UN development system. This review is an opportunity seized by SIDS, which are often disadvantaged by the UN’s notoriously bureaucratic and top-heavy structure. In recent years, Forum island leaders have been boosting their engagement with the UN Secretary-General. Last September, they met Guterres at UN Headquarters in New York, taking their wish list directly to the top.

Recognising the importance of climate action for island nations, Guterres said he intended to visit the Pacific region in 2019 as part of his global advocacy on climate change. He made good that pledge in May this year, with a visit to Fiji, New Zealand, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Speaking this week in Tuvalu, Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, said: “The UN Secretary General’s visit was a tremendous boost to the region. We were very happy that we were able to host him. He was in good listening mode, but also his positions that are important to the region around climate change helped to energise not just the leadership of the region, but the people of the region.”

This sentiment was echoed by Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, following Guterres’ visit to the small atoll nation.

“Man, I was so impressed and so thankful,” Sopoaga said. “He came as he promised to us in New York in September last year – so he kept to his promise. To have such a very senior official of the United Nations to come all the way – visited Fiji, visited Tuvalu and Vanuatu – I think it’s a real plus.”

At a May 2019 summit in Fiji, Guterres highlighted two fundamental challenges for the Pacific region: “First, the increasingly severe impacts of climate change, and second, the deepening threats to the world’s oceans and seas. I am here to see the region’s climate pressures firsthand, and to learn about the work being undertaken by communities here in Fiji and elsewhere to bolster resilience.”

The UN Secretary General called for “an end to subsidies for fossil fuels and shift towards renewable energy, electric vehicles and climate-smart practices. Our efforts should also include carbon pricing that reflects the true cost of emissions, and accelerating the closure of coal plants, halting plans for new ones, and replacing those jobs with healthier alternatives so that the transformation is just, inclusive and profitable.”

Music to the ears of Forum island countries, but not the largest Forum member, Australia. Since its election in 2013, the conservative Coalition government in Australia has abolished the carbon pricing mechanism created by the previous Labor government, maintained extensive fossil fuel subsidies, and facilitated new coal mining in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Key ministers support the opening of new coal-fired power stations in the north of the country.

Following the summit, Pacific leaders issued the “Blue Pacific’s Call for Urgent Global Climate Change Action”, stressing the importance of action at this September’s UN climate summit in New York: “At the Climate Action Summit, platitudes and repackaged commitments cannot be the substance of our deliberations. We need transformational change at scale, and courageous leaders prepared to deliver on it. …All countries, with no caveats, must agree to take decisive and transformative action to reduce global emissions, and ensure at scale mitigation and adaption support for those countries that need it. If we do not, we will lose. We will lose our homes, our ways of life, our well-being and our livelihoods. We know this because we are experiencing loss already.”

At the Suva summit in May, Guterres also noted the success of Pacific diplomacy in creating a specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on the oceans and seas: “Your leadership was critical in ensuring the adoption of SDG 14 to conserve and sustainable use the oceans, seas and marine life for sustainable development.”

After the adoption of SDG14, Fiji and Sweden co-hosted the successful 2017 UN Ocean Conference. Guterres appointed Fiji’s former UN Ambassador Peter Thomson as his Special Envoy for the Ocean – giving a crucial opportunity for Pacific SIDS to advance their Blue Pacific agenda.

Pacific governments are also looking forward to next month’s high-level review of the progress of the SAMOA Pathway, the ambitious development agenda adopted at the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States, held in 2014 in Samoa.

Pushing for UN reform

Given their limited diplomatic representation around the world, Forum leaders have proposed changes to the UN Security Council agenda, improved UN representation in the Pacific and better liaison with the UN agencies based in Geneva.

Pacific governments have long argued that the UN Security Council (UNSC) needs reform, to focus attention on non-traditional security priorities. In line with the Boe Declaration, issued at last year’s Forum, island leaders have called on the UN Secretary General to appoint a Special Adviser on Climate Change and Security, to strengthen the global focus on climate change as a security risk.

However, bureaucracy moves slowly on the global scale. A key concern is how the UN Secretariat can expand resources for the SIDS unit in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Solomon Islands has also argued that SIDS must have a direct voice on the UNSC, through a dedicated seat in the non-permanent rotation. 

As part of the UN review, the New York Secretariat has studied the role of multi-county offices. With UN’s multi-country representation in Suva, Apia and Port Moresby, there is no full-time resident representative in many smaller island states, particularly in the northern Pacific. Pacific leaders called for a strengthened role of UN Country Teams and improvements to Resident Coordinator system, along with setting up UN permanent offices across the region.

Last year, RMI President Hilda Heine told the UNGA: “Our present UN Resident Coordinator is not a resident at all, and faces an impossible task to effectively serve ten remote nations at once.”

As a sign of possible change, Levan Bouadze from Georgia has just taken up the position as new Resident Representative of the ‘next generation’ UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, following a separation between the UN Resident Coordinator’s office.

Pacific governments are also moving to strengthen their representation with UN agencies in Geneva, with Mere Falemaka, the PIF Permanent Representative to the WTO, credentialed as ‘Observer to the UN Office in Geneva.’ Falemaka’s role now extends to incorporate all UN agencies and other international organisations in Geneva.

Despite this, Forum Secretary General Taylor is concerned that increased UN activity in the Pacific may draw human and financial resources away from the local organisations that make up the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP).

“Funding for multilateral organisations is not what it used to be – it’s decreasing everywhere,” she said. “Even the money that’s coming into the CROP agencies has decreased over the last four years. Competition for funds is going to be a concern. I want to see funding coming into the CROP agencies, because I want to see the investment in the capacity of Pacific island people.

She added: “If resources are substantive enough and can accommodate what the UN wants to do and what the CROP wants to do, then our role is to find where the alignments are and how we can work together.”

Carrot and stick

However, the success of the PSIDS group operating in the United Nations comes with costs, as major powers use carrot and stick to keep smaller states in line. This was evident with this month’s resolution to the UNGA on “Cooperation between the United Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum.”

The resolution was proposed by Nauru’s UN Ambassador and adopted by the UNGA in a recorded vote of 137 - 0, with 12 abstentions.

However, major powers like China, Russia and Indonesia all abstained, while the United States formally expressed its reservations, despite voting for the motion (the US delegation opposed references in the resolution to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, both of which are opposed by the Trump administration).

China’s Ambassador to the UN stressed that “the coordinator of negotiations failed to consider his delegation’s contributions and the concerns of other States”, a barbed reference to the Nauru government, which is aligned with Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic (at last year’s Forum Partner Dialogue, a Chinese diplomat stormed out of the meeting after disputing a ruling by Forum chair Baron Waqa of Nauru).

This year’s Forum host Tuvalu is also one of six Pacific countries aligned with Taiwan, which will add to the Taiwan-China jousting in regional affairs. Taiwan is using its relationship with Pacific allies to lobby for UN membership. In September 2018, Nauru, Tuvalu and Marshall Islands all used their annual speeches at the UNGA to call on the United Nations to “seek a solution to include Taiwan in all its process, including the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the World Health Organisation.”

Indonesia too abstained on this month’s UN resolution, with their representative regretting that “one member of the Pacific Islands Forum continued to interfere with Indonesia’s domestic affairs” – a reference to Vanuatu, which has long supported the right to self-determination for the people of West Papua. The Vanuatu government has been lobbying for stronger action by the Forum to address human rights violation by the Indonesian military and police in West Papua – an issue to be debated this week in Funafuti.

Given growing regional support for the United Liberation Moment of West Papua (ULMWP), Indonesia has joined the UN Special Committee of Decolonisation, alongside Fiji and Papua New Guinea, in part to block any move to have West Papua re-listed as a non-self-governing territory by the United Nations. Indonesian diplomats, like their French counterparts, were horrified when Tuvalu, Nauru and Solomon Islands successfully moved a motion through the UNGA in 2013, relisting French Polynesia as a non-self-governing territory.

The theme of this week’s meeting in Tuvalu is “Securing our Future in the Pacific”, with leaders planning to discuss the regional agenda for coming decades. But at a time of growing geo-political conflict between China and the United States and shifting power in Asia and Europe, island states will need to maintain their collective voice to be heard on the global stage.

Nauru’s legal wrangle

A huge legal battle looms in Nauru over the trial of 19 people some of whom former opposition parliamentarians with the Baron Waqa Government opting to appeal its Supreme Court ruling that the republic should foot the legal bill of the defendants.

In his landmark judgement on 21 June this year, Supreme Court Judge Geoff Muecke of Australia ordered the Waqa Government to pay AU$224,021 (USD165,880) towards the expenses of the four Australian-based lawyers of the 19 defendants. This money was to be paid to the Supreme Court of Nauru by 5pm on Friday, 29 June.

Nothing was paid by deadline however with the government of Nauru exercising its right to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision. This means that the appeal would have to be heard by the Court of Appeal of Nauru, a court that currently does not exist.

In a surprise move earlier in the year, and following a secret pact with the government of Australia, the Nauru Government had announced that it would no longer uses the Supreme Court of Australia as its Appeals Court. It would establish its own, Nauru added.

A closer reading of Judge Muecke’s ruling reveals that the jurist had anticipated the non-payment of the legal fees. Order number 3 in his ruling reads:

“I order that the Republic of Nauru pay into the Supreme Court of Nauru the sum of $224,021.90, or such other sum as may be agreed between the DPP and the defendants’ Australian legal team, by 5pm Friday 29 June 2018, for and on behalf of the legal fees and disbursements of the defendants’ Australian legal team for the trial in this matter, and for some fees and disbursements already incurred.

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Slow growth expected

NAURU’S economic growth is expected to slow down this year with the country heavily reliant on revenue derived from finite and uncertain sources. The country is largely dependent on revenue from the Australian Regional Processing Centre (RPC) for asylum seekers. The centre generates an estimated A$18 million (US$13m)in annual visa fees, while the value of Australia’s in-kind contributions toward the RPC operations are reportedly larger.

It’s widely speculated that the economic benefits from the processing centre peaked in 2015. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicts, however, that for 2016 in addition to revenue from the processing centre, the Nauruan economy will be buoyed somewhat by larger increases in public spending, and higher consumer spending as households benefit from government debt repayments and the liquidation of the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust.

This will be supplemented by continued progress in budget implementation, coupled with an expected recovery in phosphate exports. Nauru’s 2016 budget targets continued fiscal expansion with a supplemental budget passed last October increasing revenue to US$86 million with a matching increase in planned expenditures. The reliance, however, on revenue from foreign fishing licenses, may well be the pivotal point for economic growth as, with many Pacific economies, income from such licences can....

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THERE appears to be some discord within the Pacific Forum over the mounting international and regional concerns about what some Pacific Forum member countries view as a breakdown in democracy in Nauru.

Apart from alleged government interference in the country’s judiciary, the recent arrests of two suspended Opposition Parliamentarians and restrictions on citizens’ access to social media sites have led to heightened concerns about a breach of democratic principles. The two Opposition MPs were arrested in June following a protest - which the Nauruan Government described as a violent riot - outside Parliament. A third Opposition MP has had his passport cancelled preventing him from leaving the country to visit his family in New Zealand. In recent times, Nauru has also sacked and deported its Chief Magistrate who had issued injunctions restraining the President Baron Waqa-led government from deporting two residents.

A Chief Justice who was returning from vacation was also refused re-entry into the country. Concerns over the alleged breakdown of democracy in the once phosphaterich country were raised on the fringes of the Pacific Forum Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Sydney in early July. Both, Australia and New Zealand took the opportunity to voice their concerns in bilateral meetings with the Nauruan delegate.

According to the Secretary General of the Pacific Forum Secretariat, Dame Meg Taylor, the current situation in Nauru does not warrant regional action under the Biketawa Declaration.

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