The ‘deafening silence’ of Australia and New Zealand on democracy and human rights in the Pacific

ANALYSIS: By Biman Chand Prasad in Suva

The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting has come to an end and what is intriguing is the deafening silence on the declining standards of democracy, governance, human rights, media freedom and freedom of expression, despite the serious and probably deteriorating situation in some countries of the region.

The focus on climate change is necessary and welcome. However, to effectively address climate adaptation and build climate-resilient infrastructure, countries need to mobilize large amounts of resources.

The effective use of these resources will depend on standards of governance, transparency and accountability. Without it, efforts to address the climate change emergency will run into difficulties and waste resources.

In any case, not everything can be reduced to climate change, which too often becomes a convenient means of avoiding other difficult problems and distracting attention from national problems. And we have other important pressing issues, such as media rights and freedom of expression, which deserve to be heard at the highest levels of this august body, but which have been conveniently swept under the rug of “subjects”. sensitive,” it seems.

Human rights – including freedom of expression – underpin all other rights, and it is regrettable that this Forum has failed in its moral obligation to send a strong message of its commitment to defending these rights.

Australia and New Zealand are considered the doyens of human rights and media freedom in the region, and the presence of their leaders at the Forum was an opportunity to send a strong signal to the countries members on the sanctity of these values ​​- but the moment has passed without any declaration.

Anthony Albanese and Jacinda Ardern could have taken the initiative and spoken out on these issues on their own accord, but they did not, thus giving some credence to voices who claim that when it comes to the Forum, the australia and New Zealand are concerned with their own strategic interests first, and the interests of Pacific Island countries second.

Avoid “nasty topics”
To that end, the two Western world leaders appeared to be at pains to avoid topics deemed distasteful to their Pacific Islander counterparts, apparently for fear of pushing them further into China’s arms.

This includes an apparent fear of upsetting Fiji, which has had a draconian and punitive media law in place since 2010. There are also concerns in Fiji about the independence of important offices, such as the Electoral Commission, which are particularly urgent in an election year. .

The Fijian government is also denying the rights of thousands of tertiary students to access a good quality education by withholding more than FJ$80 million (NZ$50 million) in grants from the University of the South Pacific.

Apparently, in meetings last week, only the Prime Minister of Samoa, Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, called on the Fijian government to release the grant.

Australia and New Zealand’s silence has prompted criticism that they are practicing the politics of convenience rather than principle and have lost moral ground in the Pacific region.

Appeasement of autocratic rulers in our region as a strategy against China is not only wrong, it is also shortsighted and counterproductive.

A restrictive and undemocratic environment, where the media is suppressed and the people deprived of a voice, is good for China. It is therefore in Australia’s and New Zealand’s interest to combat these trends by speaking up rather than keeping quiet.

Appeasement is not the best strategy
The sooner Australia and New Zealand realize that appeasement is not the best strategy, the better for them and for the region. If we are vuvalle (a family) as Australia says, then we should be looking at our collective interest, rather than just our individual interests.

Unfortunately, the Forum Secretariat chose not to invite Fiji’s parliamentary opposition leaders to any of the meeting events, even though they represent a significant proportion of the country’s population.

This was another missed opportunity to get a fuller picture of the situation in Fiji instead of the official version only. This leads to a partial and poor understanding of what is going on, which is hardly the basis for sound decision-making.

As leaders of democracies, Australia and New Zealand must move away from an egocentric approach and adopt a more conscientious long-term vision in the region.

As things stand, in their preoccupation and fear of China, they seem to lose sight of the objective. Australia and New Zealand should never compromise on governance, human rights and freedom of expression, the building blocks of democracy in the region.

Dr. Biman Prasad is an Adjunct Professor at James Cook University and Punjabi University, and is currently a Member of Parliament and Leader of the National Federation Party in Fiji. He is a former Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Business and Economics at the University of the South Pacific. This article was first published by DevPolicy Blog and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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