Weapons of the Weak

Radio New Zealand journalist Johnny Blades created a memorable image last week when he posted a montage of six heads of government from some of the smallest states of the world, each standing at the podium at the United Nations General Assembly.

The leaders of these six countries—Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu—all raised the issue of continuing human rights abuses in West Papua, and advocated for its right to self-determination.

These representations should by rights have emerged from the Pacific Islands Forum in Palau, but if rumour is to be trusted, the organisation’s larger economies are responsible for the Forum’s resounding silence on the issue.

In a tacit demonstration of the unwillingness to live within the Forum’s constraints, a half dozen Pacific leaders engaged in an orchestrated manoeuvre, a chorus of complaint against the clear pattern of systemic disregard for the human rights of indigenous West Papuans.

Talk may be all we can do about it, but at least we can do that.

Slowly, inexorably, human rights have clawed their way into international relations. In spite of tragic setbacks when strategic and financial concerns come to the fore, quality of life has come to be accepted as kind of important to development. (A shocking revelation, I know.)

Slowly, governments and their leaders have come to the realisation that where for systemic injustice is concerned, payback can be a bit—er, a bit more than they’re able to withstand. All the Indonesian government has succeeded in doing in its decades-long campaign to tip the demographic balance in West Papua in their favour is create a smaller, poorer version of Northern Ireland. With a gold mine in the middle.

This week, we’ll see evidence that indigenous culture is very much alive and well on the western half of the island of New Guinea. When Ya’mune (pronounced Yah-MOON-eh) grace the stage at Saralana Park, Vanuatu will receive a vivid reminder of just how close we remain in spirit, culture and kastom. The band received permission to visit Vanuatu after an arduous application process that required they undertake to remain completely apolitical.

But as we see in today’s edition of Life & Style, that won’t stop any of us from singing songs of freedom.

In the East Asia Forum last week, ANU’s Joanne Wallis published an article entitled, ‘Hollow hegemon: Australia’s declining influence in the Pacific’. The piece argues that Australia has an inconsistent and misapprehended vision of its relationship with its closest neighbours. The Pacific Islands are not nearly as amenable to Australian influence as Canberra seems to think.

Ms Wallis cites a series of occasions on which Australia has either been forced to back-pedal or been left looking foolish in the face of events in the Pacific. Nowhere was this more evident than in how it successive governments dealt with Fiji after the 2006 coup. “Australia’s efforts to isolate and adopt sanctions against the military regime had little effect and, in 2012, Australia resumed formal diplomatic relations with the military regime two years before Fiji returned to democracy.”

“Australia’s strategic influence in the Pacific is waning,” she concludes, “and the characterisation of the state as a ‘regional hegemon’ is a hollow one.”

She goes on to use a memorable phrase to describe Pacific countries’ non-cooperation with Australia’s fitful attempts to exert influence throughout the islands. “Pacific states are … exercising ‘weapons of the weak’ — foot-dragging, expelling officials, staging demonstrations, sabotaging agreements, and brinkmanship.”

Anybody who’s ever tried to get anything done in Vanuatu, in Melanesia—indeed anywhere in the islands—will know that islanders can offer a master class in such passive aggressive wars of attrition.

And these are the weapons that are being brought to bear on the issues of human rights and decolonisation in the Pacific. Notwithstanding the Nauruan PM’s rather beyond-ironic paean to human rights, the Pacific is becoming a redoubt of conscience and morality on the world stage.

Talk, music, dance and celebration are also important weapons in the arsenal of the oppressed. These weapons of the weak will be on vibrant display this week down at Saralana Stage. And when you have five thousand people or more using them all at once, they might not seem so weak after all.