As host of this week’s Pacific Islands Forum, Nauru faced uncomfortable questions about its compromised relationship with Australia and censure of its stance towards China. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Nauru’s fraught Pacific relations exposed

This week, in recognition of Nauru’s 50th anniversary of independence, the microstate hosted the region’s principal political meeting, the annual Pacific Islands Forum. Within a day, the conference exposed the region’s tensions and anxieties: on climate change, Chinese influence, Australia’s offshore detention and the host’s authoritarianism. Within 48 hours, those tensions had become reality: Nauru was feuding with China, had detained a New Zealand journalist for interviewing refugees, and had been condemned by the Samoan leader for refusing to stamp the passports of Chinese diplomats. Meanwhile, one delegate told me the issues of climate change – the “most significant security issue for us” – and Nauru’s abandonment of transparency and judicial independence had been buried.

The Pacific Islands Forum began in 1971, and now comprises 18 members, including Australia. There are as many “dialogue partners”, including China, the European Union and the United States. In 2000, the forum ratified the Biketawa Declaration, a regional security agreement made after that year’s Fijian coup, which obliged mutual assistance in times of political unrest or natural disaster. This week, delegates expanded its framework but, as one delegate told me, regional security means different things to the Pacific Islands than it does to Australia. While Australia emphasises maritime surveillance and hedges against China, the delegate said, the Pacific Islands – some of the least polluting countries in the world, but some of the most imperilled by rising ocean levels – are very concerned about climate change.

Nauru’s preparation for the forum included demolishing one of the “top side” immigration camps in Nauru’s centre and moving a large contingent of asylum seekers to Anabar in the country’s north.

Preparation also included limiting the media’s presence. Some of this, Nauru said, owed to sheer logistics – the country is the size of Melbourne Airport, and has only a few hotels – but was otherwise mandated by contempt and suspicion for much of Australia’s press. In July, Nauru’s prime minister, Baron Waqa, declared that no ABC staff would be granted a visa to attend the forum, because of “this organisation’s blatant interference in Nauru’s domestic politics prior to the 2016 election, harassment of and lack of respect towards our president in Australia, false and defamatory allegations against members of our government, and continued biased and false reporting about our country”.

This obliged some softly mouthed regret from Australia’s then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and a boycott from much of Australia’s media. News Corp did, however, send reporters. This week, at the “pre-forum media workshop”, Waqa lectured the gathered journalists: “As gatekeepers, you ultimately mould and conduct what is being published to the masses, ultimately shaping their views and opinions of the world whether gossip or fact. With the fast-developing world of social media and wannabe journalists, the lines that distinguish real journalism and baseless or fake news become blurred. As journalists you need to be the reliable source of reliable and factual news for the people.”

The speech was a typically condescending mix of flattery and threat, before Waqa itemised “fields” of interest for the media. The list didn’t include refugees or Nauruan democracy.

Two days later, TVNZ journalist Barbara Dreaver was detained by local police after interviewing refugees outside a local restaurant. The Saturday Paper contacted a number of witnesses who described two police officers intervening and demanding the camera be turned off, before confiscating phones and demanding to see the identification of refugees. “We wanted to start an interview, then police arrived and asked her to turn off the camera and show ID,” one witness said. “And then a policeman took her car and the other police officer went to him and I talked to him, but the police came quickly and took my phone and her phone and [said] she had behaved badly. Maybe we should have been secretly interviewed.”

Dreaver’s media accreditation was revoked but was reinstated on Wednesday – the day the New Zealand prime minister arrived. Before it was, the Nauruan government denied Dreaver had been detained: she had, in fact, been “voluntarily” assisting authorities, and the whole matter was about the reporter breaching visa conditions that had been designed for her, and her subjects’, safety. Dreaver would later say: “For the record, I did not voluntarily accompany the police. They ordered me to turn off the camera, confiscated my phone for three to four hours, told me I had breached visa conditions, said they were taking me to the police station and ordered me into the police vehicle. They were professional throughout the entire process, but it was not voluntary.”

The Saturday Paper spoke with a number of refugees this week, many of whom had been transferred to the northern camp. They felt that the Nauruan government were eager to hide them. “Some refugees working, they didn’t let work because the forum people will be there so they stopped them from work until the forum finish. I said if they could bury us alive until the forum [finishes] they will,” one refugee told me.

“Some Nauruan told me, ‘Without you guys we have nothing’,” she said, aware of Nauru’s heavy reliance upon Australia’s offshore processing for revenue.

Another refugee told me: “I got a job here, I saved some money for rainy days but it’s not the life we were looking for. It’s been six years we are away from our family and still in limbo. We need to be out of dark side, we need to break the monotony of our daily life.

“I’m graduated in industrial power and I’m working here as a electrician but the wage in Nauru is low and working here is a kind of servitude. I’m kind of expert who is good at electrical, but my wage is about $5 an hour. My wife is agriculture engineer but there is no job for her here, so she feels to be useless.”


Not for the first time has Nauru found itself both the bedevilled minnow and sly beneficiary of global currents. It is one of just 16 countries that formally recognises Taiwan. This diplomatic recognition began in 1980 and continued until 2002, when formal ties were transferred to the People’s Republic of China. Just three years later, a new Nauruan government renewed its conspicuous and profitable alliance with Taipei.

It’s an old game in the Pacific. Small, isolated and economically fragile countries have exchanged formal recognition of sovereignty for money. In 2009, less than a year after the brief Russo–Georgian War, Nauru became just the fourth country in the world to formally recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia – parts of Georgia occupied by Russian forces. Nauru was joined by Nicaragua, Venezuela and, unsurprisingly, Russia. At the time, the Georgian minister for reintegration said: “The recognition of Abkhazia’s independence by Nauru is more like comedy – it changes nothing in the international arena.”

But it did change Nauru’s national accounts and offered a legal avenue for Russian patronage where previous illegitimate ones had closed. In 2001, the independent Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, working within the OECD, found evidence that billions of Russian mob dollars were being laundered in Nauru – specifically through 450 “offshore banks” that were all registered to one government post-office box. After the passage of anti-money laundering legislation in 2004, Nauru was removed from an FATF blacklist.

The fissures of that game, already obvious, were made especially public this week when Nauru refused to stamp the diplomatic passports of the Chinese delegation, only permitting their entry on their private documents. This snub – obliged by Taipei’s patronage – was compounded when Waqa refused a Chinese diplomat the floor during a meeting. The delegate loudly voiced his displeasure and left. Waqa later described him as “insolent”.

Australia remains the Pacific region’s largest donor but China is catching up. By some estimates, it has committed almost $6 billion to the region in the past seven years – including a $3.5 billion investment in Papua New Guinean infrastructure last year. While Nauru doesn’t have diplomatic relations with China, plenty of its neighbours depend upon it. This was the context of Nauru’s antagonism, and the Samoan prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi’s outrage at it. “Your unilateral action as President of Nauru is a dangerous precedent that I believe may not be accepted by forum leaders,” he wrote in a letter to Waqa. “The decision taken by your government questions the integrity, credibility and foundation of our organisation.”

Meanwhile, a Nauruan anti-corruption advocate, Squire Jeremiah told me he was disappointed by the Pacific Islands Forum. “I always look at this summit as a great opportunity to be heard, where real core issues shall be discussed, but it didn’t turn out the way I, or we, would have thought.”

But for all of the conflict this week, the threat of climate change proved one thing on which the delegates could agree. In a revised regional security agreement, known as the Boe Declaration, members asserted that: “Recognising that climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of Pacific people, leaders reaffirmed the importance of immediate urgent action to combat climate change and committed to sustained, high-level representation and collaboration in the lead up to, and at, 24th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention ... to ensure effective progress on Pacific priorities with regards to the Paris Agreement, particularly the development of the Rule Book and Guidelines for implementing the Paris Agreement, building on the Talanoa Dialogue.”

All 18 members were signatories, but Australia – whose government has no mechanism for emissions reduction and for whom energy policy exists as a third rail – worked behind the scenes to massage the language of the declaration. The ABC reported that Australia refused to sign a declaration asking for the “urgent acceleration” of emissions reduction.

For all that, the surviving language on climate change was muscular – even if the forum’s final communiqué was without mention of refugees and Nauruan authoritarianism. My conversations with refugees this week were uniformly cynical. “They just want money,” one told me. “Nauru government only wants money. They make their hands dirty with Australian government, but they don’t care.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 8, 2018 as "Nauru’s fraught Pacific relations exposed".

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