Bad news travels just as quickly in small islands as it does in metropolitan centers. But it appears that bad news—“a problem”—is often more difficult to get a handle on in the islands, since addressing a problem means it first has to be acknowledged, and acknowledgement is usually about as welcome as a failing grade in school. For one thing, getting along in a small island, at least superficially, is a priority. So keeping disputes or problems muted and in the background is generally preferred, while at the political level this island custom is often used to avoid dealing with issues.
The overlay of western-style democracies on centuries old customary practices—that emphasize consensus and harmony, while frowning on openly voiced criticism and complaint—is an ongoing source of tension in many Pacific islands in this modern era. While customary practices of non-confrontation and indirectness may serve the interests of wily political leaders, today’s leaders are confronted with two norms now prevalent in the region: Local populations are, after more than 30 years of political independence, accustomed to democratic practices that include the free exercise of individual rights; and the digital age, in fact the remarkable leaps in connectivity over just the past five years, has generated a level of public information availability and scrutiny of government performance that is unprecedented.
In today’s world, there are global reports on sustainable development, doing business, trafficking in persons, freedom of the press and religion, climate action, money laundering and tax havens, government bankruptcy and debt, and more. They are all now easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. No longer can governments control the message, much as some may try. Perhaps more to the point, island governments that not only desire but actively seek benefits from engagement in the world community can, of course, cherry pick the advantages while ignoring the requirements of compliance to gain these benefits—but doing so means the country can suffer reputational risks or, in worst case scenarios, sanctions from other governments and aid agencies.
A couple of cases in point:
- The Marshall Islands suffered the largest demotion of any Pacific nation in the recently released World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report for 2015, dropping 25 points to a 139 ranking out of 189 countries evaluated. Likewise, the Marshall Islands was the only Pacific nation to be demoted to “Tier 3” (the worst level) on this year’s U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons report. Whether or not all people reading these reports accept these findings—certainly governments in the spotlight often dispute them vociferously—these reports are in the public domain for anyone to read. And when a country is receiving multiple negative reports, disputing these reports is both futile and lacking in credibility. In the case of the Marshall Islands, when it was listed on the trafficking report’s “Tier 2 Watch List” last year for the second year in a row, the Foreign Minister called the report “BS.” This year, government officials simply did not comment publicly on the trafficking report. On a positive note, efforts to deal with improving capacity to legislate, investigate, prosecute and enforce acceptable standards related to human trafficking have moved into higher gear in recent months, largely as the result of U.S. State Department funding to the International Organization for Migration, which is spearheading collaborative work with Marshall Islands government agencies to address a checklist of problem areas that should move the country off Tier 3. The question that needs to be asked, however, is why did the Marshall Islands government allow it to happen when it has the experience—it successfully removed itself from a global money laundering blacklist over a decade ago and has remained in good standing because of ongoing engagement on the issue—to avoid the demotion?
- The Nauru government’s actions over the past two years have hurt its reputation as a functioning democracy. Among other actions, it recently confiscated the passport of one member of parliament who is in the opposition, and suspended several MPs for speaking to international news media; it cut off access to Facebook for the country (joining such anti-democratic nations as Syria, China and Iran); deported or refused re-entry to two judges, fired its police commissioner, revoked a visa for the expatriate wife of an opposition MP, and made it difficult for opposition MPs to bring in Australian attorneys to represent them in court; and imposed a US$7,000 non-refundable application fee for journalists wishing to visit the island, effectively preventing journalists from covering developments in Nauru. Although these actions recently prompted both Australian and New Zealand leaders to speak with Nauru leaders about democracy issues at home, the Nauru government simply says these are domestic matters and it is following the rule of law. United Nations Special Rapporteur David Kaye, who visited the country earlier this year, had a different view, saying: “It should lift all restrictions to access Internet and social media, and facilitate access to the media in the country. Nauru should revise its course of action and take measures to fulfill its human rights obligations.”
The governance picture is certainly not all bad news in the region. A number of island governments are improving their international reputations by adhering to global governance standards. Papua New Guinea, for example, was the only Pacific nation on “Tier 3” human trafficking status last year, and improved to “Tier 2 Watch List” this year. The Federated States of Micronesia, similarly, was on the “Watch List” last year, and improved its standing to “Tier 2” in 2015.
For the most part, these global rankings evaluate what systems governments have in place to foster what can be described as good governance or best practices. We may not think we have human trafficking or money laundering happening in our countries, but if we have no process for investigating and asking the questions, who can say for sure? No government in the region condones illegal practices, such as human trafficking, but obviously simply being against something is not an adequate response in today’s world where trafficking, terrorist financing and worse are global problems with local ramifications.
The island norm of not asking questions and refraining from open confrontation—generally a necessity for functional democracies—may be most extreme in atoll nations, where getting-along at all costs is simply a requirement of life. Still, even the smallest of our islands need systems in place to promote democracy and accountability, and to reasonably ensure that illegal activities ranging from money laundering to trafficking are not happening. And if they are discovered, there is a mechanism in place for action.
Prior to the Internet age reaching the Pacific and the ramp up in global awareness of best practice systems, most of the Pacific islands were literally on the outer fringes of world consciousness. Not many knew what was happening in our islands, and even fewer cared. Not so anymore. And as countries in our region sign up to international conventions and treaties, take sides at the United Nations on key issues of the day, demand action on climate, fishery and other challenges from developed nations, and seek donor aid for development, there is a price to pay, not so much in dollars and cents, but in government responsibility to meet global good governance standards and in the public obligation to hold our governments accountable for delivering the benefits of this international engagement to people in the community.
Photo: Ebon Atoll in the Marshall Islands, by Megan Coe.