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Nuclear Free Pacific disagreement spawned MSG agreement
Last week Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) leaders converged on Port Vila to celebrate its Silver Jubilee. But how many of them know the circumstances surrounding the creation of the MSG, what kind of leaders were behind it, and what was their vision for Melanesia?
We can find some of the ideologies and visions behind the creation of a Melanesian sub-regional political grouping in the words of the late Fr. Lini. He said if Vanuatu decides to imitate other countries of the world, there can be no freedom in terms of being one’s own individual identity. He believed in a bright future for Vanuatu in terms of economic and social development, and taking an important and active role in the region. He said, “Gradually but surely, such phrases as “Pacific Way”, “Pacific Revolution”, “Pacific Ideology”, and “Pacific and Melanesian Socialism” will become realities in our lives. Melanesian Socialism means “Small is beautiful, small is powerful, and small is practical”.
He penned these very words on the eve of independence in 1980. During his first four year term as Prime Minister, he was embroiled in disagreements with Australia and France over the independence of East Timor, West Papua, New Caledonia, Tahiti, and the issue of a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone.
In 1982, Fr. Lini imposed a ban on US nuclear warships docking in Vanuatu or entering into its territorial waters, committing Vanuatu to be totally free of all nuclear weapons or material.
In 1983 Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands followed suit and declared a port ban on nuclear materials in their ports.
At the Pacific Forum leaders meeting at Rarotonga, Cook Islands in 1985, Prime Minister Lini refused to sign the final form of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. He defied Australia, New Zealand and all the other Pacific island nations which agreed with Australia, saying the Raratonga Treaty was weak, not comprehensive and partial.
Fr. Lini said he wanted the treaty to be water-tight. He would not sign the agreement until the document was by his definition water-tight.
Only three countries objected. The formation of a regional Melanesian bloc within the Pacific Islands Forum was emerging and at the helm were Prime Minister Walter Lini, PM Paias Wingti of PNG and Prime Minister Ezekiel Alabua of the Solomon Islands.
They objected to the compromises forced on the Forum by Australia, trying not to jeopardize relations with the United States.
After this ‘David’ stand-off with ‘Goliath’ in the Forum, New Zealand followed suit in declaring port bans on nuclear material in their ports.
At the 1986 Forum meeting in Suva Lini together with Wingti and Alebua said they would not sign the agreement if it was still not strong enough at the Suva meeting. Their position was consolidated in Suva in 1986 and two years later on March 14th 1988 in Port Vila, they formally established the MSG.
Here they demonstrated that Melanesia, was small, but powerful. It was able to withstand external pressure from the US through Australia to water down a significant treaty that would declare the Pacific a nuclear free zone.
Due to their will and determination, the Nuclear Free Pacific was not signed, was revised and made sure it was strong enough to have an impact on the way nuclear powers viewed the pacific.
Many will argue its insignificance on the global stage. However, just how would the US and its allies be strategically positioned to strike the USSR, if their nuclear worships and submarines did not pass through territorial waters of Pacific Island countries to replenish supplies, without violating international law. So the determination of the three Melanesian leaders was significant in ending the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and its allies in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), which includes nuclear powers France and Great Britain.
What has been achieved so far?
It was never the intention of the three leaders to undermine the Forum, but to serve particular interests and more bargaining power and leverage in meetings. Part of their vision was to apply pressure on the Forum to take a much stronger stand on the decolonization of Pacific island countries particularly, New Caledonia, West Papua, East Timor and Tahiti. It was also the vision of Prime Minister Fr. Walter Lini to establish a regional peace keeping corps that would be deployed into hot spots around the region. This emanated from Vanuatu experience when Fr. Lini sought assistance from the PNG Defense Force to quell the Santo rebellion in 1980.
East Timor has gained Independence. Vanuatu peacekeepers were deployed there. The Forum signed the Biketawa declaration which calls for military intervention in member countries. The Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is its first fruit. The MSG is now developing its own cadre of peace keepers through the MSG Police Formed Unit (MSGPFU).
The MSG is a major regional economic and trading bloc in the Pacific. The implementation of a labor mobility scheme promises further growth and integration within the region. It has also placed more emphasis on the maintenance of culture with the inclusion of the Melanesian Arts Festival. The establishment of an MSG Secretariat in Port Vila reflects maturity and a new phase in consolidating its resources for future development.
However, one objective is still lacking. The Silver Jubilee has seen a regress in the MSG efforts towards West Papuan independence. A decision by the government for Prime Minister Sato Kilman to sponsor West Papua’s bid as an observer in the MSG was denied. Instead he accepted Indonesia bid for observer status in the MSG.
PM Kilman’s rationale has been to bring Indonesia in, in-order to achieve independence for West Papua through dialogue, where Vanuatu can also benefit from closer bilateral and economic relations with Jakarta. It becomes a challenge that will test the very core of the MSG’s founding principles and ethics behind their original agreement to form a bloc.
This test will either solidify and strengthen the founding vision of the MSG on decolonization for all the colonized, or compromise and resort to a weak and dilute stand, imposed by its leaders today so as not to jeopardize friendly relations with its major and potential aid donors.
When Indonesia enters the MSG, it is not just Jakarta it represents. It’s by economic and political association representing transnational corporations – who are extracting oil and mineral in West Papua – the United States, Australia, WTO, OECD, IMF, World Bank and all other international financial institutions.
It is true that Vanuatu or the MSG cannot grow in isolation from the global economy. But, the issue is whether its leaders still have the resolve and the courage to proclaim their uniqueness, cultural heritage, overcome their smallness, and move heaven and earth not to compromise and follow the rest of the world, but to stand up and be counted that Small is beautiful, small is powerful, small is practical. And small does not have to go along with the masses, but be firm and rooted in what it beliefs and stand for.
It remains to be seen whether Vanuatu and the MSG will be able to rekindle the fire and the passion which burned in the hearts of its founders to see West Papua gain independence.
Time will be Kilman’s witness to see if his approach will give West Papua independence, or whether his approach is a sellout of the aspiration of the Papuan people.
>>The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and are not necessarily those of the Vanuatu Daily Post