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By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia (Oct. 26, 2002 - IPS/PINA Nius Online)---Australia's policies toward the Pacific Islands are counterproductive, leading to a steady decline in its relationship with the region over the years, activists said.

Speaking before a Senate inquiry, Nic Maclellan, former researcher with the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre in Fiji, called Canberra's approach self-centred and paternalistic.

As a result, he told the inquiry into Australia's relationship with its Pacific neighbors: "There is a weakening knowledge of the day-to-day realities of life in the Pacific. The contacts with the Pacific are not that deep.

"In recent years, Australia's relations with neighboring Pacific countries have been damaged by Australian policies on asylum seekers and refugees, climate change and global warming, sanctions on Fiji after the coup, and the provision of military aid and training for the conflict in Bougainville."

Over the past year, Australia has come under fire for using its economic weight to get neighboring Pacific Islands to take in asylum seekers it did not want on its territory.

Australia is also seen by Pacific island governments as being insensitive to their needs, because it has not signed off on the Kyoto Protocol that binds industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The tiny nation of Tuvalu threatened to take Australia to the World Court in September over its greenhouse gas emissions. Tuvalu said these threatened to drown its islands because warmer global temperatures would send sea levels rising.

Australia's handling of ethnic and secessionist tensions in the region has also been a source of controversy.

In mid-2000, Canberra's imposition of sanctions after a coup launched by indigenous Fijians to topple the first ethnic Indian-led government was received with annoyance by indigenous Fijians.

Critics have also accused Australia of letting its economic interests in Papua New Guinea color its support for that government as it tried to quell a rebellion on Bougainville island.

An Australian company owns the giant Panguna copper mine that drew protests from landowners in the eighties and nineties, and fuelled a rebellion there.

Earlier, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the inquiry that its policies are focused on economic and political reform.

"The Australian government has supported responsible governance and prudent economic management in the Pacific," the department said in its submission. "There are limits, however, to what outsiders can achieve."

For Maclellan, Foreign Affairs and Trade's focus on economic policy and government structures shows its lack of understanding of Pacific communities. "Australians are in the region, but are they of the region?" asked Maclellan, now a freelance journalist.

"In place of the paternalism that often informs the relationship, Australia has something to learn from neighboring Pacific communities, on issues such as reconciliation and indigenous rights," he said.

For its part, Greenpeace Australia criticized a report commissioned by AusAID - the Australian government's overseas aid organization - proposing that waste, including persistent organic pollutants, in Pacific countries be disposed of by incineration.

The Greenpeace submission said: "At a time when Australia is actively seeking to reduce the number of medical incinerators and has banned the development of high-temperature incineration for POPs waste, it seems incongruous to say the least, for an AusAID report to propose incineration for other Pacific Island states."

Foreign Affairs and Trade cites the brokering of the Townsville Peace Agreement between warring parties in the Solomon Islands as one of its recent successes.

Ethnic tension between Guadalcanal groups and migrants from neighboring Malaita over jobs and land led to the violent overthrow of the government in June 2000.

While Maclellan welcomed Australia's commitment to hosting peace negotiations, he argued that negotiators' failure to involve non-combatant community groups was a missed opportunity.

He said the Townsville Peace Agreement, bankrolled by Australia and signed by government and militia representatives, ignored concerns raised by Solomon Islands activists and church groups. These included the need to have qualified amnesty, truth and reconciliation processes and to deny amnesty for sexual violence.

Maclellan pointed out: "A crucial weakness in many Australian government programs is the dismissive attitude to the community sector in the Pacific. But many church and NGOs are long established and well respected, and play a crucial role in development, governance and national policy."

AidWatch, a Sydney-based non-government organization, cited what it said were other shortcomings of Australia's Pacific policies.

It said in its submission to the Senate inquiry: "Australia is failing to engage in a holistic approach to poverty reduction, and continues to employ measures such as tying aid to Australian goods and services to support vested commercial and foreign affairs interests."

Australia's aid budget is about US$975 million a year, which "leaves Australia at the bottom end of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) donor table," AidWatch added.

OECD figures, however, list other countries with lower aid budgets, and aid-to-GDP ratios smaller than Australia's .27 percent.

The Australian West Papua Association argued that Australia should support the right to self-determination of the Melanesian people of Indonesia's West Papua province.

"The West Papuan demand for their freedom will not go away," the group argued, although it fears "more oppression by the Indonesian military including the use of pro-Jakarta militias."

Maclellan agrees Australia needs to embrace the right to self-determination - something it did not do until the last minute in the case of East Timor, which was until 1999 an Indonesian province.

He said: "Australian officials who talk a lot about democratic rights say remarkably little about the right to self-determination for colonized people in West Papua, Kanaky (New Caledonia), Te Ao Maohi (French Polynesia), Guahan (Guam) and other non-self-governing territories."

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: 

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