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FOCUS December 1996 Volume 6

Human Rights Situationer in the Pacific

The Pacific region is in a state of flux. As a region that still has to be completely independent from colonial powers, it is engaged in the process of reconciling its national systems with the demands for justice to the rights of the people who are indigenous in the area. The right to self- government, to have control over their resources, and to equitable (and sustainable) development are their paramount concerns.

In the same manner, meaningful coexistence between indigenous people and European-descent settlers (with a growing number of Asian populace) in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia remains an issue that has to be settled satisfactorily.

The Pacific figures prominently in a number of issues that have implications beyond the region. Decolonization, the effects of nuclear testing, and realizing the rights of indigenous people are some of the most significant issues that continue to haunt the Pacific.


The United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoplesin December 1960. The declaration, among other provisions, states that:

  1. subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights;
  2. all peoples have the right to self-determination, and by virtue of this right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development;
  3. inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.

In November 1961, the UN General Assembly created a body called Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries. This is the main body in-charge of implementing the declaration on decolonization. It listed 6 areas in the Pacific (out of 11 territories worldwide) as non-self-governing territories. [1] These Pacific territories are:

  1. Tokelau - under New Zealand
  2. New Caledonia - under France
  3. East Timor - under Portugal
  4. Pitcairn - under United Kingdom
  5. Guam - under United States of America
  6. American Samoa - under United States of America.

As of 1984, Micronesia was listed as a non-self-governing territory under the US. [2] In 1986, it became a self-governing State with a Compact of Free Association with the US.

In 1990, the United Nations declared an international decade for eradication of colonialism (1991-2000). Based on the United Nations resolution declaring the decade, the Special Committee has to finish its work (by facilitating the exercise of the right to self-determination by the listed territories) by the year 2000.

The Special Committee held the Pacific regional seminar in Papua New Guinea on June 12-14, 1996. The participants in this seminar composed of government representatives from Papua New Guinea, Cuba, Tanzania, Syria, Fiji and Indonesia reiterated the call for the Special Committee to implement the United Nations declaration on decolonization. Representatives of Pacific States expressed the hope that the territories in the region in the list of the Special Committee will be assisted in ensuring fair preparation and free exercise of choice on their future status . The participants likewise support the right to self-determination of the Chomorro people in Guam and called on the Special Committee to expedite efforts to find a satisfactory resolution on the East Timor question. [3]

Tokelau has recently expressed its readiness to exercise its right to self-determination. It seems to strongly prefer having an internal self-government in free association with New Zealand. This is the same arrangement that Cook Islands and Niue have. Tokelau is a group of three islands with around 1,600 people. But around 5,000 Tokelauans live in New Zealand. [4]

East Timor is still a problem that will take some time to resolve. The easier route of facilitating a fair and free exercise of choice by the East Timorese on their future status as either independent State or in free association with a State has not been agreed to by its present occupying State, Indonesia. The decolonization framework is still the best option that protects the right of the East Timorese to self-determination. The United Nations, is at least, clear on this point. [5]

Polynesia, a part of which is under French rule, is not in the UN list. The non-inclusion of French Polynesia in the list was criticized by the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea as depriving its people of the right to exercise a free choice of becoming independent or associating with other States. This criticism was aired during the regional seminar of the Special Committee mentioned above. [6]

It is reported that the French government wanted to increase the autonomy of New Caledonia. [7] It implies that France does not want to let New Caledonia gain complete independence. This position contravenes the United Nations principles on the right to self-determination as it (France) wants to prolong its hold on the territory rather than facilitate its transition to a fully independent State. The Kanak (indigenous people of New Caledonia) also accuse France of bringing in new migrants to the islands (mainly French people) in order to affect the free exercise of the right to self-determination of the residents as demographic composition shifts in favor of the French settlers and migrants. Under a 1988 law, a referendum to decide on its future status will be held in New Caledonia in 1998 . Both Kanak and voting French residents in New Caledonia as of 1988 and their descendants of voting age are going to participate. [8] This situation was also criticized in the Pacific regional seminar of the Special Committee as an attempt by France not to allow New Caledonia fairly decide its future status.

It is also reported that the new French migrants get more of the newly-created jobs rather than the Kanak (even if they are qualified).

Hawai'i was removed from the list following a 1959 statehood plebiscite vote. [9] The result of this plebiscite was used by the US to justify its removal from the UN list. West Papua (now called Irian Jaya) had an "Act of Free Choice" in 1969 and was taken out of the list. [10] It became part of Indonesia.

Nuclear testing

Nuclear testing in the Pacific has stopped but its lasting effects have not been fully addressed. Three nuclear power States conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific for almost 50 years (1946 to 1995). The impact of these tests on the health of the people in the nuclear testing areas and on the environment have not been fully studied.

The United States of America, United Kingdom and France conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific. The United States of America made tests in the Bikini and Enewak atolls from 1946 to 1958 with 66 atmospheric tests. The United Kingdom had its tests in Christmas island and in the Australian desert from 1950 to 1960. France had its nuclear tests in Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls in French Polynesia from 1966 to 1995. [11] More than 180 nuclear tests (with 41 atmospheric tests) were done by France. [12]

A European Parliament committee conducted in 1996 a week-long hearing to find out the necessity of nuclear testing, and its impact on health and the environment. A European Commission fact-finding mission sent to the atolls in September 1996 found that:

  1. there is a serious lack of information on public health;
  2. there is no epidemiological data on the local population of French Polynesia since the start of nuclear testing (1966);
  3. the last epidemiological study on the local population was conducted in 1965;
  4. no cancer register had been kept by France since the start of nuclear testing, only when the health program was transferred to the territorial government was one started;
  5. the mission was refused information on a number of cases of cancer of the thyroid gland;
  6. the people of Tahiti want close surveillance of exposure of the local population to radiation;
  7. ciguatera (fish poisoning) has increased dramatically since the start of nuclear testing - about 5,000 cases per year, indirectly linked to nuclear testing;
  8. there is evidence of social disorder caused by the immigration to Papeete, the main island of Tahiti, from the atolls, resulting in high unemployment rates.

The fact-finding mission also reported on the damage of nuclear testing on the environment. "It said that the volcanic stability of the atoll has been greatly disturbed with 78% of the boreholes dug under the subterrain of Mururoa. This could cause the overlap of the fissures caused by the blasts." [13] Nuclear leaks have been reported in Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls. The potential of more nuclear leaking is great.

An international team (with a representative of the South Pacific Forum) will study the environmental impact of the French nuclear testing under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The team will not be looking at the health issues involved. The team has expressed satisfaction at the cooperation of the French government in providing the needed information. [14]

A study by a group of non-governmental organizations was undertaken recently in Mururoa on the possible consequences of French nuclear tests on the health and well-being of the people of French Polynesia. In its initial finding, the group reported that workers in the Mururoa atoll had contracts that require them to remain silent about the activities in Mururoa, deny them access to medical records, and effectively prevent them from seeking compensation for possible health problems. The French ambassador to Fiji countered that the confidentiality demanded is a "natural" practice in French government work. It was also reported by a representative of another non-governmental organization that 90% of the on-site workers suffer from various types of cancers including leukemia and thyroid cancer. [15]

Bikini and Enewetak atolls are the areas where the US held nuclear tests . It is also reported that the effects of the nuclear testing extended to the other atolls in the Marshall Islands. High rate of miscarriages, birth defects and "jelly-fish babies" (born without eyes, arms, legs and shaped unlike human babies, and die shortly after birth) are reported to have occurred in Marshall Islands. The government of Marshall Islands, after gaining independence, officially sought compensation from the US for this problem. [16] While the people have been clamoring for compensation for years before that. In the 1980s, the US put 90 million US dollars to clean up Bikini atoll, 6.42 million US dollars for Resettlement Fund for Rongelap Atoll (of Marshall Islands) part of 45 million US dollar. These funds were agreed upon as part of the Compact of Free Association with the US.

British military veterans who were deployed in Christmas island during the nuclear testing of Britain have attributed to nuclear testing the illnesses that they are suffering from . Through their organization called British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA), they filed compensation claims with the British government for the radiogenic illnesses, leukemia, genetic defects on their children, etc. that they suffered. But without access to military medical records, they were unsuccessful. They have now taken their cases to the European Commission on Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. [17]

The Pacific has the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, more popularly known as Rarotonga Treaty, which prohibits the stationing of nuclear explosive devices within the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone (SPNFZ), requires renunciation of nuclear explosive devices, and prohibits the dumping of nuclear waste and conducting nuclear tests. This treaty has three protocols on manufacture of nuclear weapons, their use or threat of use, and nuclear testing respectively. The French government said it will sign the protocols after announcing the ending of its nuclear testing. The US and UK also indicated that they will sign jointly with France. [18] On March 25, 1996 the three nuclear power States signed the protocols at the South Pacific Forum secretariat in Suva, Fiji. The protocols have previously been signed by China and Russia. [19]

A whole new set of issues arises. As nuclear testing ended, will the nuclear powers renounce their nuclear arms? What about the former French test sites? The treaty does not cover dangerous nuclear-related activities such as export of uranium, presence and transit of nuclear-powered vessels, testing of delivery systems, nuclear waste disposal and transport, and inadequately protected nuclear power generation. Dangers are therefore still existing. [20] How will these be controlled?

Indigenous peoples' rights

The question of rights of indigenous people in their very own societies that have now become the home of other settlers or migrants remains in Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia. Native Hawaiians, said to be descendants of Polynesian islanders who came to Hawaiian islands about 1,000 years ago, suffer disproportionately high rates of poverty, alcoholism, suicide and incarceration. Forty percent of Hawaii's homeless are native Hawaiian. They now comprise one-fifth of the present population of the State of Hawaii. [21]

Hawaii was a kingdom until 1893 when it was overthrown by the Americans. Crown lands were seized and became part of US territory. The 1959 vote made Hawaii the 50th state of the US. This legal act (voting) has not erased the fact that there was a forcible change of government in Hawaii done with the support of the US government. On the occasion of the 100th year of the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, the US government made an official apology for the overthrow. [22]

In September 1996, a Plebiscite/Native Hawaiian Vote was held by the State of Hawaii to find out what the native Hawaiian response is to a single question (in English and Hawaian) in the mailed-in ballot: "Shall the Hawaiian people elect delegates to propose a native Hawaiian government?" Out of 85,000 voters, only 22,294 (or 26%) voted yes, 8,129 voted no, and the rest boycotted the exercise. From these figures, it appears that native Hawaiians oppose any state-sponsored plebiscite that can result in the creation of a Hawaiian government. It is believed that this government will only be controlled by the US federal and state governments to their prejudice. It is also believed that it will mean the loss of whatever land is left with them. [23]

The indigenous people question is also very much an issue in New Zealand and Australia though there are positive developments that promote the indigenous peoples' rights. In New Zealand, a tribunal called the Waitangi Tribunal was created to look into cases under the Treaty of Waitangi (a treaty made between the British Crown and many of the Maori chiefs in 1840 regarding the establishment of British government in what is now known as New Zealand). This tribunal made decisions (1983-1988) that upheld the rights of the Maori to the use of their traditional lands and fishing grounds based on the provisions of the treaty. [24] In Australia, there were also court decisions that recognize the native land title of the aborigines as shown in the Mabo (Torres Strait Island) and Dhunghutti (New South Wales) cases. [25]

The Mabo case declared for the first time that Australia was not an unoccupied land at the time of the arrival of the Europeans (British) in 1788 and that the traditional laws of the aborigines are legitimate sources of rights just like common law. [26] This is a major reversal of the official government position of terra nullius.

Government programs similar to affirmative action have been put up for the benefit of the Maori and Australian aborigines. Inadequate as far as indigenous people are concerned, they are nevertheless under attack by the white populace for giving too much for too long. In Australia, the policy of reconciliation (attempting to atone for the past injustices with a wide range of special social, economic and land-ownership provisions) is now being questioned by some of the white population. Discriminatory treatment against the aborigines remains widespread.

Aborigines now number around 300,000 out of the total population of 18 million. They have 60% unemployment rate, more likely to die 18 to 20 years earlier than whites because of poor health, and 18 times more likely to be in prison. 38 aboriginal communities do not meet the World Health Organization standards. [27] To perceive this situation as undeserving of support for the real improvement in the lives of the aborigines is difficult to understand. Certainly, the needed support must be rooted to the very reason why the situation occurred in the first place.

Many European-descent New Zealanders are also thinking that the New Zealand government has been bending over backwards too much to accommodate the Maori. The latter, however, think that they have not been given what is due them despite the formal agreement by the government to settle their claims. [28]

What constitutes a realization of indigenous peoples' rights in the case of New Zealand and Australia seems to be a subject of debate still. Full agreement by the Maori and aborigines and their mainly European-descent counterparts on the answer to this issue is certainly a must.

Movements for independence

Armed movements for independence do exist in the Pacific.

The case of Bougainville is one. Bougainville is a group of islands separate from the New Guinea island. The New Guinea island is composed of two parts: the West Papua or Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea. Bougainville became a province of Papua New Guinea when that country became independent in 1975. Independence from Papua New Guinea arose in 1989, beginning with the dispute over an Australian copper mine operation. That eventually gave rise to the formation of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). The Papua New Guinea launched a military response that has so far failed to defeat BRA. The major concern at the moment is the cessation of hostilities between the Papua New Guinea (PNG) military forces and the BRA. Around 10,000 people have died since the start of the armed conflict in 1989 and 7,000 people injured. Charges of massive human rights violations by the PNG military forces have been made in different fora including the United Nations.

As a move toward a political solution to the problem, the Papua New Guinea government created the Bougainville Transitional Government in 1989. This body is headed by a Bougainvillean leader. [29] It has the main task of facilitating the peace process that had started between the Papua New Guinea government and BRA. The Governor of the Bougainville Transitional Government, Theodore Miriung, was unfortunately killed recently by armed men. A Commonwealth-appointed inquest team (formed upon the request of PNG Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan) found links between Miriung's murder and the PNG Defense Force. [30] This incident is a major setback in the peace process and show the urgency of having a ceasefire and pursuing the peace talks further until a political solution is found.

The West Papua case is another. West Papua has several tribes - Amungme, Dani, Ekari, Nduga, Damal, Moni and Kamoro. The exploitation of natural resources and the entry of people from other regions of Indonesia have impact on the lives and environment of the indigenous people in West Papua. The copper and gold mining operations of P.T. Freeport Indonesia symbolizes the present situation in the area. After years of operation and rising number of protests from the indigenous population, it has begun to take more steps to communicate with the indigenous population and even offered financial support for the development of West Papua. Several of the tribes (Amungme, Ekari, Dani and Nduga) however refused to accept the offer and instead initiated a 6 billion dollar lawsuit in the US against the mining company for destroying the environment. [31]

P.T. Freeport Indonesia has been accused of committing human rights violations/abuses. It avoided investigation of charges of human rights violations and environmental destruction by cutting off relationship with the World Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (US) which both express concern about the charges. [32]

The Indonesian approach of bringing in the military has caused violations of human rights as several people have been killed and detained during demonstrations protesting the P.T. Freeport Indonesia mining operations.

P.T. Freeport Indonesia has indeed become the symbol of Indonesian rule over West Papua. Resistance to this rule has taken the form of both legal and violent means. The Free West Papua Movement (OPM) has taken up the armed resistance mode and espouse not just a share in the fruits of the commercial exploitation of West Papua but its complete independence from Indonesia.

The West Papua case shows how indigenous people react to marginalization in terms of losing control over land which they traditionally and rightfully possess, being affected culturally by the introduction of money economics, and being treated less than what citizens of a State should have. The huge economic potential of West Papua is the main factor for the continuing problems being faced by the indigenous people there. There is a report that West Papuans want to be inscribed in the UN Decolonization list but so far no country will sponsor them.

Racial tensions

Under British rule, Indian workers were brought to Fiji to work in the agricultural fields. As they become part of the Fijian society and assert their right to participate, racial tensions arose. [33] Indigenous Fijian politicians began to view the rising political strength of the migrants as threatening their own control over the government. In 1987, two coup d'etat were instigated by indigenous Fijians. One result was the withdrawal of Fiji from the Commonwealth. Another was a revision of the Constitution giving indigenous Fijians a marked advantage over the Indo-Fijians.

This racial tension can hopefully be settled through constitutional means. The government created a commission to review the Fijian constitution and recommend measures to address the problems facing the State (including the racial tension). The Fiji Constitutional Review Commission, having reportedly worked without interference from the government, submitted a report on a new constitution for Fiji that includes proposals for addressing the racial tension issue. A parliamentary review of the report is now the next step. Government appeals for consensus-building as the approach to resolve issues apparently received support from the opposition party. The challenge in this whole process is in finding the balance between the collective indigenous rights of indigenous Fijians and the individual/human rights/democratic rights of all its citizens. [34]

The well-publicized rise of racism in Australia and some reports on the treatment of African migrants in New Zealand are other examples of ethnic and racial tensions in the Pacific.

Regional structures

There are inter-governmental bodies covering the south Pacific states.

One is the South Pacific Forum with a secretariat based in Suva, Fiji. This body is a political grouping of independent States. It was formed because of "... a common desire by leaders to develop a collective response on a wide range of regional issues, including trade, economic development, civil aviation, telecommunications, energy and political and security matters." It was established in 1971 and now has 16 member-states. It has a post-Forum Dialogue system by which discussions with the Canada, US, UK, France, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and European Union on Pacific affairs are held. [35]

Another regional body, formed before SPF, is the South Pacific Commission (SPC) which places emphasis on economic and social welfare. It has a secretariat based in Noumea, New Caledonia. It has 22 sub-regional members composed of island governments and territories. The US, France, Australia and New Zealand are also members and main sources of funding. UK has just withdrawn from SPC. It is now accepting members from Asia (specifically China, Japan, and South Korea) and the Americas (Chile and Canada). It has taken up such matters as agriculture, fisheries, HIV/AIDS, and women and development. [36]

Among the inter-governmental structures, the SPF has been taking up human rights related issues such as decolonization and nuclear testing. It has at one time suspended the participation of France as a post-Forum Dialogue partner after it started the recent nuclear testing in the region.

On the non-governmental side, there is the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement. Its secretariat is the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre (PCRC) based in Suva, Fiji. This regional network concentrates on issues of decolonization, demilitarization and denuclearization, among other issues. Another regional network is the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO) which concentrates on developmental and environmental issues.

Concluding note

The Pacific is truly a diverse field. The human rights issues however have some commonalities that necessitate a regional approach to problem-solving. Decolonization, effects nuclear testing as well as rights of indigenous people issues do unite the States and territories together toward a common goal of a region of independent States, free from nuclear activities, and respectful of the rights of its native Polynesian , Micronesian and Melanesian inhabitants (living alone or together with other settlers be they European-descent, Asians or people from other regions).

There is still much work to be done in the field of human rights. The governments in the region are themselves charged of perpetrating violations of human rights in their respective territories.

Human rights issues in the Pacific reflect very much the peculiar situation of the region. A suggestion for a "Pacific approach" should not mean what an "Asian approach" to human rights is - a virtual disregard of the basic principles of human rights as set out in international instruments. It should be an approach that put people first instead of national security or the supposed national development.

End Notes

  1. Nic Maclellan, UN Decolonisation Committee, Pacific News Bulletin, July 1996, page 8.
  2. See Edmund Jan Osmanczyk, Encyclopedia of the United Nations, London, 1985, page 895.
  3. Maclellan, op. cit. page 9.
  4. David Barber, Tokelau to stand alone, Pacific Islands Monthly, August 1996, page 11.
  5. During the visit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Indonesia, Mr. Jose Ayala-Lasso publicly stated that there were violations of human rights in East timor that had to be corrected. He also noted that an improvement in the situation in East Timor can influence positively the political dialogue on the issue. See Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on his visit to Indonesia and East Timor, 3-7 December 1995 to the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN,4/1996/112 - March 14, 1996).
  6. Maclellan, op. cit., page 8.
  7. Nic Maclellan, UN Decolonisation Committee, ibid. , page 9.
  8. Nic Maclellan, Immigration to New Caledonia threatens Kanak rights, Pacific News Bulletin, October 1996, page 4; Sam Vulum, France singled out at decolonisation seminar, Pacific Islands Monthly, August 1996, page 32.
  9. Native Hawaii Vote - Pacific News Bulletin, July 1996.
  10. Maclellan, UN Decolonisation Committee, op. cit., page 9.
  11. Fiji Nuke veterans, Pacific News Bulletin, page 15; Roger Moody ed., The Indigenous Voice - Visions and Realities, volume 2, Zed Books Ltd., London, 1988, page 84.
  12. Alfred Sasako, Is France Developing a New Nuclear Warhead?, Pacific Islands Monthly, March 1996, p. 6; Bernadette Hussein, Checking the damage, Pacific Islands Monthly, January 1997, page 17-18..
  13. Alfred Sasako, ibid. pages 7-8.
  14. Bernadette Hussein, Checking the damage, ibid.
  15. Bernadette Hussein, Mururoa the untold story, Pacific Islands Monthly, January 1997, pages 14-15.
  16. Bernadette Hussein, An American legacy..., Pacific Islands Monthly, September 1996, page 17.
  17. Mere Momoivalu, A Christmas to Remember, Pacific Islands Monthly, September 1996, page. 20.
  18. Alfred Sasako, Reason to celebrate, Pacific Islands Monthly, April 1996, page 22.
  19. Sophie Foster, An epic moment?, Pacific Islands Monthly, May 1996, pages 6-7.
  20. Foster, ibid.
  21. Ellen Nakashima, Native Hawaiians consider asking for islands back, The Japan Times, September 26, 1996.
  22. Nakashima, ibid.
  23. 'Native Hawaiian Vote': boycott succeeds, Pacific News Bulletin, October 1996, page 13.
  24. see Ian Brownlie, Treaties and Indigenous Peoples, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1992, pages 13-20.
  25. Native Title -Oz mainland, Pacific News Bulletin, October 1996, page 14.
  26. Nicholas Woodsworth, Australia and its aborigines, The Japan Times, September 11, 1996.
  27. Michael Perry, 'Loss of our land would leave us powerless', The Japan Times, September 11, 1996.
  28. David Barber, A new kind of apartheid, Pacific Islands Monthly, march 1996, page 18.
  29. Sam Vulum, Soldiers or assassins?, Pacific Islands Monthly, January 1997, page 27.
  30. see Human rights violations in the Papua New Guinea, Report of the Secretary-General, Economic and Social Council, United Nations, E/CN.4/1996/58, April 15, 1996.
  31. Keith Leovard, Culture Clash, Far Eastern Economic Review, June 14, 1996, page 443.
  32. West Papua: Freeport Manoevres, Pacific News Bulletin, October 1996, page 6.
  33. Michael C. Howard, Fiji: race and politics in an island state, UBC Press, Vancouver , Canada, 1991, pages 28-31.
  34. Fiji: a delicate balancing act, Pacific News Bulletin, October 1996, pages 7,10.
  35. A Brief History, Pacific Islands Monthly, September 1996, page 15.
  36. Debbie Singh, Changing hands at SPC, Pacific Islands Monthly, January 1996, pages 42-43.

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