Friday, August 2, 2013

Australia complicit in PNG's Bougainville blight


Pacific conflict: Associate Professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, of the University of Hawai'i, and others speak about conflict and transition. How can conflict-affected countries break cycles of violence, low trust or weak institutions? A Praxis panel seminar series.

OPINION by Ellena Savage of Eureka Street

THE PNG Solution is in breach of international law. It doesn't serve the best interest of the asylum seekers it will affect.

And Australia's Department of Immigration and Citizenship is taking grossly insufficient responsibility for the safety and security of its detainees on Manus Island.

But the PNG Solution is just another in a long line of "border control" solutions which are in breach of legality and morality. There is nothing new about it.

Much has been made of PNG's poverty and gender-based violence, but even more disturbing is its military and police human rights record.

Evidence of abuses in the form of a military blockade, massacres, rape and torture during the Bougainville Crisis, the civil war that spanned the 1990s, are well-documented.


Ellena Savage
This conflict was sparked by what local communities saw as profound environmental and economic damage perpetrated by Rio Tinto's copper mine at Panguna. What began as civil disobedience quickly descended into civil war, and Rio Tinto was subsequently taken to a US court, accused of genocide.

In 1990, the island was subject to a state-sanctioned blockade that lasted six years, during which time no trade in or out of the island was permitted. This prohibited the import and export of information (media blockade), energy, medical supplies and clothing.

Denied schooling
A generation of young people were denied formal schooling, and preventable illnesses killed young and old in the thousands.

Councils and organisations emerged to provide education and natural medicine, hydro- and coconut-based power was ingeniously created, and radiowaves were hijacked by rebels for communication.

A map of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville showing
the proximity to the neighbouring Solomon Islands.
Map: Eureke Street
Yet accounts from this time paint a terrifying scene. One witness wrote that the scarcity of clothes led some elderly people to remain inside their homes for over a year because they were ashamed of their nakedness.

"Corruption", which is well-documented in PNG, sounds empty. But its outcomes are disturbing. State corruption produces a culture of corruption at every level.

People with power are not held accountable. In times of disaster, people with power who are not held accountable are liable to perpetrate violence against vulnerable people.

The Bougainville Crisis made exiles out of many civilians. Some fled to Port Moresby or Australia if they got out early and had the right resources. Others sought asylum in the Solomon Islands.

In documentation of the conflict, witnesses recall the PNGDF gunning down Red Cross boats as they smuggled people, clothing and medical supplies to and from the Solomon Islands.

Australian funding
These violations have yet to be acknowledged by the PNG government. This tragedy happened right under our noses.

What's more, Australian funding was used by the PNGDF to perpetrate it.

This morsel of history makes two important points. Firstly, that the PNG government is not capable of caring for its most vulnerable citizens due to systemic corruption. Secondly, that when human rights abuses occur with our complacent knowledge, we acquire some moral responsibility.

A few days ago I sat and listened to an older Aboriginal woman tell stories about her life. Throughout her childhood, she had been terrified of being stolen from her mum, as her mother had been stolen from her grandmother.

She spoke of her lifelong struggle to trust people who had not shared her experiences growing up. She said that her children suffered as a result.

The point is that clever, crowd-pleasing policy that is predicated on the suffering of others today will have negative impacts for generations.

Bernard Keane argued in Crikey that the Left's answer to asylum seekers is to 'let them all in' at any cost, and that this is in contradiction to any reasonable policy outcome.

His argument draws asylum seeker rights as simply vain, empty gestures of the left, rather than the legal and moral entitlements of survivors of persecution.

If it is culturally impossible to develop policy that is democratic and respectful of people's right to safety and dignity, then we simply need to give up on the idea that we live in a liberal democracy.

The management of asylum seekers in Australia is a question of careful policy, but policy-making is not a zero-sum game. Do we remember the Stolen Generations as a careful maintenance of the bottom line?

History will not be kind to us. The details of mass human rights violations have a habit of coming to the fore eventually.

In the future, perhaps after an inquiry, maybe a formal apology, our antecedents will wonder: how did they let this happen?

Ellena Savage is a Eureka Street columnist, arts editor at The Lifted Brow and politics editor at SPOOK magazine. She has written about literature, feminism, and political culture for publications including Overland, Australian Book Review, Right Now, Arena, and Farrago, which she co-edited in 2010. Her 2012 essay "A Man Like Luai" won the Tharunka Non-fiction prize. She tweets as @RarrSavage

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