In the last 20 years, Pacific island nations have been hubs of political and constitutional dynamism. Sadly in some situations this dynamism has been accompanied by a loss of life, property and/or liberty.
The Pacific dynamism has resulted in leaders, politicians, Courts, Constitutions, and allegiances being tested, stretched, changed and sometimes broken. As a region which is often overlooked, it has been hard to ignore the events which have affected them.
Tonga held its first elections under reformed electoral and constitutional arrangements in November 2010 after public protests for major constitutional change.
The Papua New Guinea general election of 2022 was plagued by delays, issues with the electoral roll and concerning incidents of violence, resulting in many fatalities and thousands of displaced citizens. Prior to that in 2011, the Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare was removed while offshore. And in 2020, a political crisis paralysed the government with the Supreme Court ending the impasse by declaring the Speaker’s actions of recalling parliament as invalid.
Both Fiji and the Solomon Islands have experienced ethnic conflicts culminating in coups and the forcible removal of democratically elected governments.
The general election in Fiji in 2022, resulted in a hung parliament, ultimately, an agreement was reached and on Christmas Eve, Rabuka was sworn in as Prime Minister, a significant milestone in Fiji’s democratic history. This is after four coups, two in 1987, 2000 and 2006.
In Kiribati — which withdrew from the Pacific Islands Forum in July 2022 — the government attempted to deport one of its high court justices, David Lambourne, who is also the husband of Kiribati’s opposition leader. In the aftermath, four other senior judges were suspended, leaving the country without an operational high court. Kiribati’s Attorney-General was appointed acting chief justice in October 2022.
In Solomon Islands, the election — originally scheduled to be called by May 2023 — is delayed until 2024, with the government claiming it could not afford to host the Pacific Games and hold an election in the same year. Extending terms of government has also been done before in the region, notably in Samoa in the early 1990s.
The Tuvaluan constitutional crisis in 2013 was a political dispute in Tuvalu between the government, led by Prime Minister Willy Telavi, and the opposition, led by Enele Sopoaga, that was triggered by the death of the Minister of Finance, Lotoala Metia on 21 December 2012, which eliminated the government’s majority. The dispute was eventually resolved in August 2013 by a motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Willy Telavi, following which Enele Sopoaga was elected Prime Minister.
In Vanuatu in 2021, a conflict between the Speaker and the Prime Minister led to Speaker declaring that the Prime Minister and 18 other Members of Parliament had vacated their seats when they boycotted Parliament. The Court of Appeal recognised the 19 as Members of Parliament.
Samoa in 2021 experienced a deadlock in the election results with subsequent efforts to undermine the court through allegations of judicial bias, and weaken the Courts role to interpret the constitution and resolve disputes in accordance with the law. While frightening at the time, thankfully due to the judicial branch working as it should in a democracy, Samoa got through its troubles and now has a new government.
While it is easy to look upon these events as testing and trying, these events demonstrated the resilience of Pacific people, and the resilience of democratic institutions of those islands. It is this resilience that will be needed for the region to face its greatest threat yet, the climate crisis.
Unlike a constitutional challenge or political crisis which ends, the climate crisis will become more devastating as time goes on.
Although the Pacific nations contribute to less than 0.03% of the world’s total carbon emission, they are struggling to cope with the effects of the climate crisis.The rising sea level leading to coastal erosion and sea water intrusion onto land making crops difficult to grow is a real concern which affects pacific communities. Higher ocean temperatures and overfishing all affect coral reef ecosystems. Many Pacific communities rely on the moana or ocean for their survival so the threat to their very survival is imminent.
Tuvalu is looking at legal ways to keep its ownership of its maritime zones and recognition as a state even if the Pacific island nation is completely submerged due to the climate crisis. Perhaps the most vivid image of the climate crisis is Tuvalu’s foreign minister recording a speech for the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow in 2021, standing knee-deep in seawater to highlight how Tuvalu, a low lying island, is on the frontline of the climate crisis.
The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent is a recognition by Pacific leaders of the value of regional cooperation and their shared commitment to work together to achieve the greatest benefit for Pacific people.
As Pacific Islands are trying to find a way to collaborative way to handle and approach the climate crisis, given the islands geographical isolation from each other and the rest of the world, enter China, bringing a whole other dynamic to the region’s dynamism. Security issues have been brought to the fore.
Professor Alexander Gillespie said;
Chinese influence and power in the Pacific is a reality that cannot be wished away or easily undermined. With the US similarly determined to assert itself, the stakes are rising. All nations should work together to ensure no small, independent Pacific country becomes a pawn in what could be a very dangerous game.
Many regional responses have been noteworthy, despite the occasional political personalities clash. Under the 1992 Honiara Declaration, Forum Leaders noted that balanced economic and social development, a central goal of all the countries of the region, could not be achieved without the assurance of safety and security. Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders committed in 2018 to cooperate more on regional security in the Boe Declaration on Regional Security. The declaration defines security broadly, covering human security, environmental and resource security, transnational crime, and cyber security.
The United States of America, New Zealand and Australia are big players in the Pacific region, having ties to the region which go back to early last century. They are concerned about military presence by China in the region, particularly with Solomon Islands signing a security pact with China and Kiribati aligning itself with China, while Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru ally themselves with Taiwan. The preoccupation by partner states with strategic competition in the Pacific is evident. The United States has made obvious efforts recently to reassert itself in the Pacific. New Zealand has strategically implemented a Pacific reset. Australia is becoming more present in the islands.
China has no doubt brought a lot of economic assistance to Pacific island nations, as it has had a presence in many Pacific island nations for many years. The concern of the United States, Australia and New Zealand is understandable given China does not share the same democratic values that comprise the cornerstone of those countries and Pacific island nations. Democratic norms and practices have a solid foundation in the Pacific. But the Pacific dynamism of the last 20 years has reminded us that democratic norms and practices cannot be taken for granted in the region. China will not actively push for those institutions in the islands, but would rather stay in the background, seemingly quite neutral.
The United States, New Zealand and Australia need to continue to invest in building and supporting the key institutions of democracy in Pacific island nations, and in particular the understanding of the need for each to respect the role of the others. In Samoa, New Zealand and Australia were the first to reach out and express their support for Samoa’s independent Judiciary during the challenges of 2021.
If that is not enough for the people of the Pacific to contend with, they have the daily struggles, as they are not islands which are rich in mineral resources, with the exception of Papua New Guinea. Real Gross Domestic Product growth has been volatile with low average trend rates of growth, which reflect narrow economic bases, dependence on a few commodity exports (agricultural, forestry, fishing and minerals) being sold into often volatile international markets in which the islands are price-takers, the impact of natural disasters such as cyclones, and poor governance and political (and policy) instability.
What all this means in layman’s terms is that the vast majority of Pacific peoples face financial struggles. Often this means that at the coalface, security and democratic concerns may not feature as prominently in their realities. Strategic competition by partner states may do little to address daily struggles in Pacific nations. It is all a matter of perspective.
What does all this mean for Pacific dynamism? It means we cannot predict how each Pacific island nation will respond to the challenges they face. All we can be certain of is that those responses will be uniquely Pacific. Pacific voices should be heeded because at the end of the day, it is their reality which matters, not ours looking from the outside in.
Suffice to say, as a region, the Pacific still requires its partners New Zealand, Australia and the United States to ensure that its democratic norms and practices are maintained, and partner states add to Pacific voices and efforts in combatting and handling the climate crisis. As for the security issue, perhaps the way forward is a peaceful co-existence with China, given that it has rolled out its mat, made its bed, and is not looking to leave the Pacific anytime soon.
Leilani Tuala-Warren is a Professor of Law at Te Piringa, School of Law, University of Waikato. She took up this role after 10 years on the Bench of Samoa, first as a Family Court Judge then as a Justice of the Supreme Court. Prior to that, she held roles in law reform and in private practice as a Barrister and Solicitor. She holds an LLB and LLM (with Distinction) from the University of Waikato