Australia has made a concerted pivot towards the Pacific. Although the attention is welcome, Australia’s tools and methods of foreign policy are dated.
Recent foreign policy debate in Australia has been uncharacteristically Pacific-facing, mainly in reaction to China’s regional diplomacy and aid. But this commentary often paints the south-west Pacific region as a blank slate on which Australia projects its own notions of influence, interest, and “family.” The Pacific states are diverse, while localised conflict dynamics often remain hidden from Australia’s view. Geopolitical fears obscure on-the-ground realities. Pacific women experience high levels of gender-based violence, and extractive industries create conflict. Meanwhile much of the region is navigating legacies and present realities of colonialism, including secessionist demands. In such places, past tensions remain unresolved and new ones are emerging — most prominently the impacts of climate change. Conflict is a reality, and there may be an increasing risk that it will manifest as violence.
Existing Peacebuilding Efforts
Pacific people do, however, have strong capabilities and extensive experience in both building and maintaining peace across the region. These capabilities are embedded in kinship networks, community institutions and the work of an array of hardworking individuals, drawing upon their relationships and resources to work to prevent violence. They are often supported by national and regional NGOs. Transcend Oceania, based in Fiji, has worked with people across the Pacific region to address underlying political and social divisions. In Solomon Islands, Vois Blong Mere has for decades supported women peacebuilders while ex-combatants work on local reconciliation. Women in Bougainville have led some of the most innovative peacebuilding work you will find anywhere in the world.
Some of this work is supported by a handful of like-minded international actors. These include a small community of Australian peacebuilders who work out of a handful of NGOs, universities, and consultancies and who have developed close working partnerships with Pacific peacebuilders. The Australian government does support some regional peacebuilding work, mostly indirectly through partnerships with these actors, but this support occupies a marginal place within the Australian Government. After its “conflict and fragility” team was disbanded in 2020, DFAT today has no single section with the expertise and mandate to oversee and support conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and mediation efforts. “Peace” does not appear anywhere in the 2022 DFAT budget papers, but “security” is pervasive throughout. “Security” invites mostly short-term action to deal with perceived or real threats. “Peace” invites us to think longer-term about how violence happens, and what can be supported to ensure violence does not occur: the surest pathways to security are through peace.
Towards Investment in Peacebuilding and Mediation in the Pacific
Peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and mediation are related to, but quite distinct from, both development and diplomacy. There are overlaps with both, however, peacebuilding is longer-term, involving activities dedicated to building capacities to resolve conflict without violence, strengthening existing conflict prevention and resolution practices, and mediating disputes (or equipping others to do so). This work needs to be prioritised, planned for, and resourced. Experience tells us that development projects and diplomatic efforts that ignore underlying conflict drivers are likely to fail.
In its recent set of Pacific papers, the AP4D project identified “a focus on mediation and peacebuilding” as an essential pathway for Australia to achieve a robust and mutually supportive relationship with Pacific states. It’s clear Australian investment in this work would contribute to security in Australia’s region. While Australia does contribute more than the donor average to “peace” activities in fragile states, this is predominantly through multilateral contributions. In the important work of conflict prevention, however, Australia appears to contribute only around AU $2 million, one percent of its total peace contribution. The donor average, meanwhile, is closer to four percent. Increasing support for conflict prevention and mediation in our near regions is well within Australia’s capacity, starting with additional resources for the array of peacebuilders working at community and national levels. At least as important is ensuring peacebuilding and mediation are reflected within the strategy and structure of DFAT and other government agencies, and as elements of their programs and advice to cabinet.
However, with very limited programs, policy, and expertise – and with a mixed record in the region as an agent of peace – Australia should exercise caution in taking such a step. We should, as the AP4D report suggested, exercise “strategic humility,” recognising that we don’t have all the answers, and that we risk causing harm by rashly responding to sensitive issues. Ensuring a “do no harm” approach, means investing in capacities to understand the context, letting others advise us on how best to assist, and letting Pacific Islanders take the lead. Pacific people working as peacebuilders know a lot more about their contexts and are best placed to find solutions.
Australia’s new Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong has got off to a good start. She seems to be investing the time and resources to be present, to sit down and listen. Her example needs to be followed at all levels, in our diplomatic missions, in our peacebuilding CSOs, and in the private sector. We tend to throw around terms like “Talanoa” and “tok stori” but if we’re to truly listen and learn and change, we need to understand what they mean, and how they feel in action. This may be helped by the new First Nations foreign policy, through which Australia has a chance to learn more about the value of reciprocity, inclusion and allowing space for meaningful dialogue.
There is no question that, if done right, peacebuilders in the Pacific would welcome Australia’s assistance. Doing it right, means at the very least, a willingness to admit that we have at least as much to learn as we do to offer. In Australia we have a growing community of peacebuilders with home-grown and global expertise. We have relationships with our Pacific counterparts. There is now a need to develop longer-term thinking on the challenges our neighbours face, and in turn resource with humility to meet these challenges.
James Cox is executive director of Peacifica, a non-profit research and advocacy organisation dedicated to peace and conflict resolution in the Pacific, and to building a community of peacebuilders, mediators and conflict prevention specialists in Australia, the Pacific and Asia.
Ciaran O’Toole heads up Conciliation Resources’ Southeast Asia and the Pacific department. Conciliation Resources is an international peacebuilding organisation based in London. He manages the organisation’s work in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and across the Pacific region. He is based out of, and manages, the organisation’s Australian branch office – Conciliation Resources Australia. Ciaran is also part of Conciliation Resources’ executive management team.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.