Professor of Laws, University of Northumbria, Associate of the Centre for Pacific Studies at St Andrews University
For 200 years the history of Pacific islands has been marked by outside influence and colonisation. At a time when the region is again at the centre of geopolitical attention, Pacific nations are coming together to defend their interests and insist on their own culture and Pacific way of determining their future.
‘DISCOVERY’ AND COLONISATION
The island states of the Pacific have a long history of association with the UK, starting with the voyages of discovery of Captain James Cook in the latter part of the eighteenth century, although there were other ‘discoverers’ and earlier encounters.
During the 19th Century contact and European incursions accelerated with the arrival of missionaries, such as those of the London Missionary Society, and thereafter settlement by planters, beachcombers and small traders. These contacts had a number of consequences, most significantly the decimation of island populations by introduced diseases against which they had little resistance, but also the resettlement of people around mission stations and the prohibition of some traditional practices.
Some of these consequences play a lasting role in the Pacific, not least the introduction of Christianity. The majority of Pacific Islanders are members of churches, and strong Christian beliefs inform attitudes towards the physical chastisement of children, the role of women, prohibitions on abortion and homosexuality, and a wide range of social values and practices. It is also true that religious beliefs and practices have become, in some respects, indistinguishable from custom and tradition.
The Pacific region has also been the site of colonial contestation between western powers, and many of today’s island states came under the direct or indirect administration of foreign governments, including those of Great Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Japan.
Tonga was the only Pacific island country never to come under colonial administration, although it did not escape western influence.
The islands of the Pacific were never regarded as terra nullius – unlike Australia – but Indigenous land claims were often ignored, misconstrued or circumvented; and customary law and customary ways of doing things relegated to informal law, or prohibited. The Pacific was a theatre of war in 1939–45 conflict, with the Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Nauru all affected. The post-war legacy includes numerous wrecks of ships and aircraft, military equipment dumped in the sea or abandoned on the land, a continuing military presence in the Marshall Islands, and the emergence of cargo cults (such as the John Frum cult in Vanuatu).
INDEPENDENCE AND COLONIAL LEGACY
In the latter part of the 20th Century former colonies and mandated trust territories gained their independence; but for many the close connection with former colonial administration has persisted: for example Cook Islands and Niue with New Zealand, Nauru with Australia, and the Marshall Islands, Palau, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia and American Samoa with the United States. There are also Pacific island countries and communities which have yet to become independent, such as New Caledonia, Tokelau, Pitcairn Islands, and French Polynesia.
The written constitutions of the newly independent states reflect something of their pasts in the preambles and statements of general principles. But they are also remarkable for their aspirational quality, especially as regards their bills of rights, and in many cases the clear assertion of the importance of custom, customary law, and/or traditions.
In the years since independence some of these constitutions have been revised, either to reflect new political directions, or to assert those values which are most important to Pacific island people. For example, the 2013 Constitution of the Republic of Fiji, promulgated following the restoration of democracy in the country, makes specific reference to the Indigenous people of Fiji (the iTaukei), Rotuma, and those descended from indentured labour brought to Fiji from India and elsewhere by the British.
The legacy of contact with western powers, particularly the UK, continues through language, religion and education. The University of the South Pacific, for example, originally with only a campus in Fiji but now with campuses in Vanuatu and Samoa and with centres in each of its twelve member countries, was established in 1968 by the British, working with New Zealand and Australia as well as local lawyers and politicians. It continues to educate students in English from all over the region, although in recent decades a number of national universities have also appeared, notably in Samoa and Fiji. Papua New Guinea, never a member of the University of the South Pacific, established its own university in 1965 under an ordinance of Australia (administering the country at the time).
The legal systems of the Pacific islands also reflect the colonial and post- colonial encounter, with French-influenced countries having plural legal systems in which Civil Law is a major source of law, while those that came under British influence have Common Law as part of their legal systems.
Foreign influence is also evident in the way aid funding is distributed in the Pacific, particularly from Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and non-state organisations such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and various United Nations bodies.
The relationship between international, regional, national or even local identity, is complex. It has sometimes been said that Pacific Islanders are ‘people of place’, suggesting they are securely rooted in one geographical location; and indeed on first meeting it is not unusual to be asked ‘where are you from’ or ‘where is your place’. The initial answer may not be where the person lives, but rather the island on which they were born, or the place from which their lineage originates.
With growing urban drift, many Pacific Islanders have moved away from outer islands and rural areas to cities and metropolitan areas. There is also a significant Pacific diaspora, particularly in New Zealand, but also Australia, the US and elsewhere. Often referred to as if homogenous ‘Pacific Islanders’, these may be second or third generation members of families, who while not living in the islands may still maintain land rights and ties to remaining kin, and observe traditional practices and customs. It is these features that link people to places, together with language, particularly where languages are locally distinct and numerous – as in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, or Papua New Guinea.
Pacific island countries are aligned (or align themselves) into various groupings. A long-standing (though no longer popular) cultural distinction is drawn between Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Fiji self-align as the Melanesian Spearhead Group to promote mutually agreed policies; but these countries are also members of much wider regional groupings such as the Pacific Forum and the Pacific Community.
Rather more nebulously, Pacific island states are included in collective terms such as Asia-Pacific and Oceania. This broad inclusion is not always advantageous, and smaller states – such as Tuvalu, Niue or Nauru – may be marginalised or neglected, particularly if they cannot send representatives to meetings. The same is true of international organisations that have offices in the region. Although there is some spread of location, the majority of these are in Fiji. This can therefore make it challenging, not only for staff in these regional offices to have a thorough understanding of the diversity of the region, but also for those further away to seek the assistance and support of these agencies.
From an international perspective the focus is often on relations with the region through one of its regional bodies, particularly the Pacific Forum Secretariat. Much of the funding that is channeled to the Pacific goes through this, or similar, regional bodies. The advantage of this approach is that the Forum operates as the political mouthpiece and think-tank of the members it represents, so it is reasonable to suppose that its priorities reflect the contemporary concerns of Pacific island states. The drawback is that while it is an inter-governmental organization, its meetings rarely reflect the whole of government, but rather specific ministries such as tourism, economics, and foreign affairs. This means the policies that are articulated and agreed may not translate into joined-up thinking when taken back home.
Lacking industrialisation and with a very small manufacturing base, the Pacific has long been a region of resource exploitation by outsiders. In the early days of contact this was sandalwood and bêche de mer (sea cucumber). Later it was the extraction of phosphate – in Nauru and Banaba; mining – particularly in Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia; and hardwood logging – particularly in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. Deep sea commercial fishing, especially of tuna, has endangered certain species, while the transportation of nuclear and toxic waste through the Pacific has led to outcry and regional treaties seeking to take back control of the waters that surround island states. However, Pacific islands are dependent on inward investment, and Pacific Rim countries such as China, Japan and Taiwan vie with each other to offer funding for various projects. Rivalry for power and influence in the wider Asia-Pacific region has led to concern that the Pacific is becoming a contested geostrategic space. While Australia and New Zealand remain the largest aid donors, China and Japan are not far behind, with the US and EU some way down the list.
Although Pacific islands are aid recipients and often referred to in international discourse as ‘least developed’, ‘developing’ and/or, ‘small island states’, Pacific island states are increasingly joining with others to make their voices heard. The power of collective voices both at the UN and at small island developing states (SIDS) conferences is being recognised.
This has become particularly noticeable at international fora focusing on climate change, and the impact this is having on Pacific Islanders, particularly those living on coral atolls which may be only a metre or so above sea level, such as in Tuvalu, parts of Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, or in coastal and estuarine areas. Across the region, it is not only rising seawater inundation that is a threat – both to physical survival and freshwater contamination – but also the damage caused by more frequent storms leading to flooding and erosion, cyclones, and earthquakes which can also trigger tsunamis. While cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis are long-standing natural threats in the region, global warming and unpredictable weather is also affecting biodiversity, subsistence food resources and livelihoods.
Pacific Islanders are not alone in experiencing the consequences of climate change. The power of collective action was evident in the decisions arising from the 2015 Paris Agreement, and it has also been seen in the compliance delays associated with the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights of the World Trade Organisation.
THE PACIFIC ‘BRAND’
While the vulnerability of Pacific islands – due to remoteness, the occurrence of natural phenomena indicated above, political instability and economic weakness – has been acknowledged for some time, more recently Pacific islands are asserting their strength as ‘strong ocean states’ under the banner of The Blue Pacific.
This rallying call has a number of facets. It resonates with current concerns about global warming and the threat to the global commons of the oceans, thereby foregrounding environmental and climate change concerns. It also draws on the long association of Pacific peoples with the oceans that surround them, the seas they have historically navigated and upon which many people depend, either for livelihoods or food. In many Pacific cultures, stories of origin and arrival on the islands are linked to the sea and the resources in them – and for many, reference to place makes no distinction between land and water.
The Blue Pacific also draws attention to the claim of Pacific Islanders and Pacific island states to be the rightful custodians of the Ocean and its resources at a time when the right to benefit is coming under growing pressure, not only in terms of fish and other marine life, but from extractive industries. The Blue Pacific trope therefore draws on a kaleidoscope of Pacific identities, from the romanticised version of the Pacific in films, tourism brochures and western stories, to the threat of environmental degradation and loss. The place of Pacific island states at the table of international concerns is emphasised, while the narrative of ‘the seas that link us’ rather than divide, demonstrates the importance of togetherness that reverberates through so much of the social organisation and traditional values of Pacific island communities.
The ‘Blue Pacific’ can, therefore, be seen as both a rallying call and a challenge. The former because it builds on historical and traditional links, from voyaging to colonial control, to recent independence; the latter because it asserts the place of Pacific Islanders in the seas that surround them, the knowledge they hold, and the custodianship they claim.
In a global world Pacific islands are no longer remote or isolated. While they do not always speak with one voice, they share common concerns, and numerically, with others, are being heard. That’s not least because their fears – particularly as regards climate change and resource expropriation which threatens the sustainability of global biodiversity – have become the world’s most pressing concerns.