A Learning Moment?

[This editorial appeared in today’s Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper.]

The arrest of Vanuatu PM Sato Kilman’s personal secretary at Sydney airport and the subsequent expulsion of all AFP staff from Vanuatu should offer players on both sides of the diplomatic fence the opportunity to reflect and, with luck, learn a little from each other. But that’s probably going to take a while.

Tempers in Vanuatu remain quite heated, and it appears that Australia has yet to figure out how to climb down from the limb it’s on. Indeed, some suggest that Australia has yet to realise it’s on a limb at all.

Obviously, no one involved thought that the diversion of PM Kilman’s party into Australian territory in order to arrest Clarence Marae would have significant repercussions. They wouldn’t have done it if they had. But judging from Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr’s statements so far, his government has yet to realise just how important deference and respect are in Melanesia.

It’s tempting to conflate the PM’s employment of a convicted criminal with this remarkable breach of diplomatic protocol. Some online commenters were quick to say that if the PM kept better company he wouldn’t have found himself in this situation in the first place. That may provide a handy little sound bite, but it does nothing to add to our understanding of the issue.

Clarence Marae’s alleged involvement in criminal tax evasion is a legal matter. The public shaming of a head of government is entirely political. Not to put too fine a point on it, one would hope that those in charge of international relations would be able to draw a distinction between the two.

Australia protests constantly that it treats its Pacific neighbours as peers, but its actions don’t seem to bear this out. It has misread events and conditions on the ground in Fiji, PNG and now Vanuatu, and in each case made itself look a great deal clumsier than it should be.

Nearly all of these mistakes can be explained by an implicit assumption that its role as benefactor somehow makes it smarter or better than its island peers. Neither of these is always true, but more importantly, neither of these matters. Equality and respect don’t stem from equal capability or even equal intelligence or skill. In sports, I don’t respect only those teammates who are stronger or better than me.

The same should be true in diplomacy. Would Australian police have used the same tactics to arrest a member of an American, Chinese or Russian delegation, or for that matter, even a Burmese or Albanian diplomatic group? So what, then, could inspire Foreign Affairs to remain silent while just such a plan was hatched for the Vanuatu delegation? It’s unfortunate to have to say this, but it’s hard to imagine any other reason than a misplaced and parochial sense of superiority.

Worse still, Bob Carr’s first reaction was effectively to say, ‘Nice aid programme you have there. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.’ This statement can only lead us to wonder whether AUSAid’s constant protestations that its programme is non-political are entirely true. There should be more to this relationship than aid.

There was a time when this kind of chastisement might have worked, but it’s behind us now. There are any number of countries who would quite happily step into any gap left by a withdrawal of Australian project and budget support. In strategic terms, Australia has as much to lose as Vanuatu if their relationship breaks down.

Still, Bob Carr did leave himself an opening. He admitted that he had not been briefed on the tactics used by the AFP to draw Clarence Marae into Australian jurisdiction. In an interview, he seemed to spontaneously suggest that a distinction could be made between the legality of Marae’s arrest and the treatment of the Prime Minister. He should pursue this further; it might just be the way out.

Kilman has made no effort whatsoever to defend Marae. So if Australia can find its way to see past the arrest, it can perhaps find a way to reconcile with Vanuatu by expressing regret over the PM’s treatment.

Nobody on the Vanuatu side is in a hurry to mend fences. We’re only months away from a general election, and while people here are not at all comfortable with seeing their head of government associating with convicted criminals, there is still a significant portion of society whose sense of national pride has been pricked by these events. Respect and deference are not abstract notions in Melanesia. It may be hard to grasp this if all you know is the law, but Melanesian kastom is predicated on peace first, justice second. In a nutshell, living on an island sometimes requires that we tolerate behaviour that we consider beyond the pale. Surrounded as we are by ocean, we don’t have a pale to go beyond.

It all comes down to this: Australia should take this opportunity to learn a little humility and respect and to try its hand at peace-making, Melanesian-style. If it does find a way to re-engage, it’s just possible that its law enforcement personnel might get the chance to help us – not punish, help – to be a little wiser in choosing the company we keep.

Safeguarding the Internet Commons

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

On January 5th, the Sydney Morning Herald published a story titled, “Dial X for Optus.” The feature recounted the story, by now well known in Vanuatu, of how Optus collaborated with certain Pacific Islands nations to make tens of millions of dollars in profit from the pornography industry.

The scheme,” wrote Vanda Carson, “allowed the telcos to bill customers premium rates for sexually explicit calls or X-rated downloads when they dialled the country codes” of many Pacific nations, Vanuatu included. “Optus was part of the partnership of telcos which acted as gatekeepers in the porn trade between the US and Europe and small Pacific islands.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Optus illegally appropriated 100 Vanuatu telephone numbers and kept all revenues generated by them.

None of that could happen today. With the creation of a functioning and effective Telecommunications Regulator, we now have proper oversight on how Vanuatu’s communications resources are used. The government of Vanuatu has made great strides in ensuring that all telephone operators manage their systems responsibly and efficiently.

Now we need to do the same for our Internet resources.

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Perspectives on Privacy

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

This week, the Australian government moved closer to implementing its controversial Internet Content Filter. The ICF represents the Rudd government’s latest attempt to curtail access to illegal or ‘unwanted’ online materials by requiring that all Australian Internet providers implement this filtering system. News sources report that the government has released the technical specification of its pilot implementation.

I’ve written before about the technical, ethical and legal problems surrounding this plan. I maintain that the system is ineffective and inappropriate, foisting a law enforcement role on the nation’s ISPs, and threatening free speech without providing sufficient protection from the very content it seeks to block.

With Internet deregulation on the horizon in Vanuatu, it seems timely to take a look at some of the basic issues underlying the debate.

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The Price of Freedom

Australia’s Labour government recently announced that they would be implementing a two-tiered, national content-filtering scheme for all Internet traffic.  The proposal as it stands is that people will have a choice of Internet connections: The first will block all Internet content considered unsafe for children. The second will allow adult content, but block anything deemed illegal under Australian law. People can choose one or the other, but they must choose one.

As with all public content-filtering schemes, this idea is well-intentioned, but fatally flawed.

National content filtering is an inefficient and fundamentally faulty technical approach that deputises the nation’s Internet Service Providers to the role of neighbourhood sherriff, something they’re not at all comfortable with. Second, and more importantly, it creates a dangerous legal and moral precedent that is difficult to distinguish from the infamous Great Firewall of China, which is regularly used to stifle social and political dissent.

Indeed, a spokesman for the online rights group Electronic Frontiers Australia recently said, “I’m not exaggerating when I say that this model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world.”

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Walking The Beat

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

On Tuesday the Daily Post published a Pacific News Service article about the Project Wickenby debacle, in which Vanuatu-based members of the Australian Federal Police raided four local financial institutions for evidence of misdeeds by Vanuatu citizen Robert Agius.

The raids raised a storm of controversy concerning the right of the AFP to conduct such operations on Vanuatu soil, and raised questions concerning their treatment of a Vanuatu citizen.

Politicians, chiefs and private citizens all expressed dismay at what they perceived as an assault on Vanuatu sovereignty by a ‘bullying’ Australia, who some claimed abused its status as a primary aid donor to leverage the complicity of the Vanuatu government.

The PNS story largely recapitulates these much-discussed events. But it’s noteworthy because it contains the first public response from the commander of the Vanuatu detachment of the AFP’s transnational crime unit in Port Vila.

These comments demonstrate a fundamental failure to understand the dynamics of the situation in Vanuatu. Worse, due to unfortunate phrasing, they appear to hold community values and approaches in low regard.

Some will take this as a reason to remain silent on contentious issues. A more appropriate response to this would be more, not less, communication.

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Power and Politics – a Sketch

Chief Vincent Boulekone with Duncan Kerr

I had the privilege this week of being asked to take some photographs at the Vanuatu unveiling of the Pacific Economic Survey. The event was attended by two Australian Parliamentary Secretaries and by a number of fairly senior individuals in Vanuatu. The photos I took will be collected here.

I was proudest of the photo above. It’s of two veteran politicians whose approach and presentation could hardly be further apart.

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Policing Piracy

The Australian government recently announced that it was taking the issue of Internet piracy very seriously. They were, according to reports, considering their own version of a British proposal to require Internet Service Providers to cut off so-called ‘repeat offenders’. People who were suspected of deliberately and repeatedly downloading unauthorised music and video files would have their Internet accounts suspended.

This is a commendable goal. Respect for the creative works of others is at a low ebb these days. We need to alter our cavalier approach to copyright and to properly reward those who spend their time and effort in creating the music, movies, software and other creations we so enjoy.
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