By Ben Schaare
Angry protests outside of Nauru’s Parliament building on June 16 over alleged government corruption are evidence of Nauruans’ serious concerns about the government’s continued disregard for the rule of law. As its largest aid donors and Pacific neighbors, Australia and New Zealand have an interest in addressing the eroding rule of law in Nauru. But due to the complex dynamics in their relations with Nauru, the United States may need to prod them to take a stance on this issue.
The protests showed mounting frustration with the government’s recent actions. First, demonstrators were incensed by reports of corruption involving bribes allegedly paid by an Australian mining company to President Baron Waqa and Justice Minister David Adeang while they were in opposition, details of which were presented in a June 8 exposé by the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC). Second, protesters voiced their displeasure at the ban that the government handed down to five opposition lawmakers for “harming the international reputation of Nauru” by criticizing the government.
The erosion of the freedom of speech and worsening treatment of government critics show the government’s growing contempt for democracy and the rule of law. For instance, Waqa initially described a Facebook ban, which went into effect on May 1, as part of a crackdown on pornography, but later said it was required to maintain stability.
Authorities on June 17 pulled opposition lawmaker Roland Kun, who had criticized the government in the ABC story, off a plane departing the island and informed him that his passport had been cancelled. Two other opposition lawmakers were arrested on June 19, and their bail hearings have been inexplicably delayed. Former justice minister Matthew Batsiua was also arrested on June 16, and his lawyer has reportedly been denied a visa to Nauru. Meanwhile. Waqa has denied these arrests were politically motivated, claiming instead these individuals were “ringleaders” of a “violent protest” to topple the government.
The crackdown on dissenters has been reinforced through legislative changes. Parliament on May 12 modified Section 244A of the criminal code, making it a criminal offense to use language deemed “threatening, abusive, or insulting in nature and with the intent to stir up racial, religious, or political hatred.” Australian lawyers advocating for the rights of asylum seekers held in Nauru have expressed concerns that this law can be used to prevent asylum seekers from speaking out about their living conditions at the Australian-run detention center. In addition, opposition politicians will have trouble contesting the 2016 elections if they are unable to criticize the government.
The Nauruan government has also targeted its international critics. In January authorities suddenly increased visa application fees for journalists nearly 40-fold, to $6,197 from $155— ostensibly to generate revenue—in what critics characterize as an attempt to deter foreign journalists from entering and reporting about Nauru. The government even resorted to calling UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye a “left-wing hypocrite” for criticizing its amendment of Section 244A. Justice Minister Adeang also accused ABC of interfering in Nauru’s domestic politics.
These actions followed more pernicious disregard of the judicial system. For instance, Nauru has removed its solicitor-general and police commissioner in quick succession, as well as exiling its chief justice. Former chief justice Geoffrey Eames said recently that the island is “lurch[ing] toward dictatorship.”
Australia has been quiet about these developments, describing them as Nauru’s internal matters. It is easy to see why; as the host of one of Australia’s controversial offshore detention centers for asylum seekers, Nauru holds some leverage vis-à-vis Canberra. Yet, it is also heavily dependent on Australian aid and revenue generated by the detention center. Canberra in 2014-2015 will provide $16.2 million in direct aid to the island, which accounts for 20 percent of Nauru’s government revenue. Visa fees for the detention center will net Nauru another $120 million over the next five years. This dependence means that any threats of retaliation by the Nauruan government to future criticisms from Canberra can safely be dismissed as bluster. To their credit, the Australian federal police are reportedly preparing to bring a corruption case against Waqa and Adeang. The Australian government should seize this opportunity to help entrench judicial reforms in Nauru.
In May 2014, New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully reaffirmed that Wellington was not considering suspending justice aid to Nauru, after having been assured by Adeang that the situation in the country was improving. One year on, McCully has reiterated that funding will not be cut, but is “deeply concerned” that it is not meeting its objective of supporting a healthy judicial system. Indeed Eames has called for Wellington to suspend the $616,000 it has provided to assist the Nauruan justice system, calling the rule of law on the island “broken.”
Without actions from Canberra and Wellington, democracy and the rule of law in Nauru will likely continue to crumble. Yet they may need Washington to push them toward taking a firmer stance. After their struggle to cajole Fiji back to democracy, Australia and New Zealand may be wary of attempting to do the same with Nauru.
The United States should actively and openly encourage Australia and New Zealand to show greater support for strengthening the rule of law in Nauru. This would not require a heavy lift, but would yield large rewards for the U.S. position in the Pacific. Standing by while Nauru continues sliding toward authoritarianism might result in regional instability, as other governments in the Pacific have also increasingly cracked down on dissent, an outcome that neither Canberra, Wellington, nor Washington wants.