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Melanesian leaders group decides West Papua independence body does not meet 'existing criteria' to join

ABC News - August 26, 2023

Stephen Dziedzic and Birtles Bill – The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) had been pressing to gain full membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) – which includes Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea – in what would have given the organisation a rare diplomatic victory in its search for international recognition.

But Melanesian leaders remained publicly non-committal to the idea in the wake of a series of meetings in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila this week.

Indonesian diplomats have also been furiously lobbying Melanesian leaders on the issue, and staged a walkout when ULMWP leader Benny Wenda was about to address the gathering on Wednesday.

And on Friday MSG leaders released a final communique which seemed to close the door on membership, saying the ULMWP did not meet the "existing criteria" and that the group could not reach "consensus" on the issue.

'A significant blow'

Tess Newton Cain, from the Griffith Asia Institute, told the ABC that Papua activists would be "very disappointed" with the response.

"What is in the communique seems to indicate that there is no pathway to them becoming members and this will be a significant blow," she said.

"It is not surprising to learn that the five leaders who met in the retreat would not have been able to reach a consensus even if the ULMWP had satisfied the criteria for membership.

"We have yet to hear from Benny Wenda or other ULMWP spokespersons how they feel about this but they may well consider that the goalposts have been moved."

Multiple protests have been organised in recent weeks in various towns and cities in Papua, including one in the city of Jayapura on Tuesday that saw several dozen demonstrators facing off against Indonesian police.

Some of the protests have been forcefully suppressed according to activists, and they come amid a backdrop of ongoing sporadic violence between Indonesian security forces and armed rebels.

On Monday in the rebel-stronghold of Papua's central highlands, a member of Indonesia's military was shot dead in an attack, according to information from both a pro-independence spokesman and Indonesia's armed forces.

Climate change initiative endorsed

MSG leaders also endorsed a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative designed to rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels.

The initiative has been spearheaded by a block of six Pacific nations but had not before been endorsed by Papua New Guinea, which has a large gas export industry.

The Pacific director of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, Auimatagi Joe Moeono-Kolio, said the declaration from Melanesian leaders showed "just how seriously they are taking the threat" of escalating climate change.

"Far from the empty rhetoric of some of our larger neighbours, today's decision shows yet again that Pacific leaders and communities are serious about committing to the tangible pathways set out in the Port Vila Call, ensuring a managed phase-out of fossil fuels and a just and equitable transition for all our Pacific peoples."

Fukushima water release criticised

Melanesian leaders also criticised Japan's decision to start releasing treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific – even though Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka appeared to endorse the move just days ago.

The IAEA found the discharge would pose a "negligible" impact on people and the environment, and was in line with international standards.

But Melanesian leaders said that did not amount to an "endorsement" from the IAEA, and said that Japan should not release the water "until and unless" it was "incontrovertibly proven to be safe by science".

Jostling for influence

The MSG leaders meeting was also shadowed by the broader strategic contest in the Pacific, with both Australian and Chinese diplomats attending as "special guests" as both nations continue to jostle for influence across the region.

The leaders said on Thursday they had signed a new joint declaration on regional security, but have not yet publicly released the document.

Dr Newton Cain said that Australia's decision to attend as a guest was "hugely significant considering that for most of the time that the MSG has been in existence, Australia has paid it little or no attention".

She also pointed out that the communique specifically noted Australia's desire to play a bigger role supporting the MSG.

"Whilst it is important that Australia has more and better engagement with the MSG, it is not without risk – as we have seen this week and previously, it can be a complex and volatile environment," she said.

Source: https://amp.abc.net.au/article/10277283