RNZ Pacific covered stories on a diverse range of topics last year. Here are the highlights from 2023. CLIMATE CRISIS When Pacific delegates, advocates, regional bodies, scientists, conservationists, NGOs and civil society show up to a Conference of the Parties better known as COP – they are carrying the weight and expectations of their people on their shoulders. And every COP, it seems what they are calling for falls on deaf ears. Many Pacific leaders attending COP28 in Dubai were united in calling for the world to keep global warming below the critical 1.5 C mark. However, they were disappointed with the conference’s outcome and critical of the final COP28 agreement. The deal calls on all countries to move away from the use of fossil fuels but does not include explicit calls to ‘phase out’ or ‘phase down’. John Silk, head of the delegation for the Marshall Islands, called it a “canoe with a weak and leaky hull” but one that “needed to be sailed” because there was no other option. Henry Puna, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum said that COP28 did not deliver the outcome the region needed. “COP28 was a disappointment because of our prioritising 1.5 degrees as our absolute priority with climate change. “We will never give up; we have to continue pushing on that 1.5.” Leaders also pushed for better financial mechanisms, to address the effects of climate change. The Loss and Damage fund became operational at the conference. It is designed to help vulnerable countries rebuild social and physical infrastructure after extreme weather events. But climate activists like the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN) were critical about the initial amount pledged, about US$700m, being far less than the amount required. The pledges are currently insufficient because the level of capitalisation beyond this initial finance should move to the billions, according to PICAN’s Lavetanalagi Seru COP28 also saw the launch of the ‘Blue Pacific Prosperity’ initiative, which is designed around three goals: 1) to protect the ocean 2) promote health 3) make financial assistance accessible. The initiative includes contributions of US$100m from the Bezos Earth Fund and $125m USD from the Global Environment Facility. CYCLONES Vanuatu experienced three cyclones in the space of eight months, all at or surpassing category four strength. Twin cyclones Judy and Kevin arrived in March 2023 within days of each other. Cyclone Lola arrived in October 2023 before the cyclone season even officially started. Teacher Andrew Gray on Pentecost Island, which was particularly badly hit from Lola, said people are anxious about future cyclones. “People are really thinking about planning for the future and what we’re rebuilding; is it going to survive the next cyclone?” Gray said. “Almost every time dark clouds gather, people are rushing to sort of find someone with data on their phone to check the weather forecast.” UNICEF Vanuatu’s field office chief Eric Durpaire said the repetition is affecting children’s development. Vanuatu has still not fully recovered from all three cyclones. The Southwest Pacific Tropical Cyclone Outlook, issued by New Zealand’s NIWA expects nine to 14 cyclones this season – nine being the long-term average for the south Pacific each season. EL NINO The Pacific has just come out of a triple dip La Niña, and entered an El Niño. La Niña is the cooling phase whereas El Niño is the warming phase of the surface waters in the eastern Pacific, off the coast of South America. In September, Vanuatu’s Meteorological and Geo-Hazards Department (VMGD) declared that an El Niño event was now affecting the country. Similarly, in Tonga, El Niño was officially declared in September by Tonga’s Meteorological Services, which will likely mean warmer temperatures, less rainfall, and more cyclones for the Kingdom. DEEP SEA MINING Pacific nations are divided on deep-sea mining in the region. The Cook Islands and Nauru are in favour of mining proceeding while Fiji, Palau, and Samoa are calling for a pause. The Cook Islands government issued licences for the exploration of seabed mining in its exclusive economic zone to three international mining companies: Cook Islands Cobalt, Moana Minerals, and the Cook Islands’ Investment Corporation Seabed Resources. The companies are trying to find out if nodules can be removed without causing serious environmental harm – the measure they need to satisfy to be allowed to mine. The licences are for five years. After that, the companies can reapply for permission to begin commercial operations. Deep-sea mining regulations are still being discussed for international waters. However, there is growing resistance to such mining, with at least 23 countries calling for a moratorium including Vanuatu, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada and Switzerland. POLITICAL INSTABILITY IN VANUATU Vanuatu has had several changes of leadership in 2023. Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, elected in November 2022, appeared to survive a confidence vote in September 2023. A legal challenge, in the Supreme Court, then determined that Kalsakau had lost the vote, and Sato Kilman was installed as Prime Minister. Kilman’s victory was short-lived, as he too was ousted by a confidence vote in October 2023. Currently, Charlot Salwai serves as Vanuatu’s Prime Minister. Transparency International Vanuatu said “squabbling” politicians hampered citizens’ rights . JUDICIAL CRISIS IN KIRIBATI Kiribati is facing a judicial crisis after the suspension of puisne judge David Lambourne, whose wife is the opposition leader, Tessie Lambourne. Kiribati has limited court services available, although currently no Court of Appeal, after its overseas judges were suspended in September 2022. PNG In February 2023, the Papua New Guinea government announced an in-house inquiry into the conduct of the 2022 national election. The poll was described as the most violent in the country’s 47 years of independence, with dozens of people losing their lives. Other than the announcement made in February 2023 about the in-house inquiry, nothing else has been confirmed. 2023 was a busy time for the prime minister: PNG signed a defence deal with the United States in May to upgrade its military bases. In December, Marape then went on to sign a bilateral security agreement with Australia. The Porgera Gold Mine is being re-opened after three years, and gold production is expected to recommence by early to mid-2024. The mine’s re-opening is expected to create up to 3,000 jobs. Porgera police have been permitted to use lethal force, to deal with violence in the area. BOUGAINVILLE The question of independence for Bougainville has also been delayed . The PNG Government has contravened the Era Kone Covenant by not tabling the referendum for ratification before the end of 2023. Bougainville is seeking independence from Papua New Guinea, based on the overwhelming result of the referendum on independence held four years ago. Almost all – 97.7 percent – of Bougainville voters chose independence. PNG’s Minister for Bougainville Affairs reminded MPs in November 2023 that the Bougainville referendum results are non-binding, and the national parliament is the only authority that will determine the fate of the referendum results. WEST PAPUA KIDNAPPING This year saw more violence in West Papua, between pro-independence fighters of the West Papua National Liberation Army and the Indonesian military. This included the kidnapping of New Zealand pilot Phillip Mehrtens on February 7th by pro-independence fighters. The kidnappers threatened to kill Mehrtens unless independence talks took place, and he remains their captive. West Papua Liberation Army spokesperson Sebby Sambom has accused New Zealand of abetting the Indonesian military. However, the leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, Benny Wenda called on the group to release Mehrtens. RNZ Pacific has been in contact with various groups in West Papua and Indonesia about the crisis. For the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, 2023 was to be the year its application for full membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group would be granted at the MSG summit in Port Vila. Benny Wenda expressed confidence that the MSG leaders would grant it full membership. It was on the agenda, but leaders of Fiji, the FLNKS of New Caledonia, PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu avoided a definitive update on the status of the application. LAHAINA FIRE The picturesque town of Lāhainā on Maui, the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, became the centre of world attention when a wildfire burned most of it to the ground, killing 100 people. Thousands of people lost their homes. The wildfire is the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years Lāhainā residents told RNZ Pacific how fires consumed homes within the space of minutes, and how many people had died in their cars as they attempted to escape. 28-year-old Leimoana Fa’alogo said she lost everything. “My whole neighbourhood is gone; it’s just all gone – homes damaged, bodies on the street…people were jumping in the water – it’s like a movie,” she said. “Our town just looks like The Walking Dead.” PACIFIC ISLANDS FORUM Pacific leaders started the year fractured but appear to have put aside their differences. “The fracture is now history,” said outgoing PIF secretary-general Henry Puna. Speaking to RNZ Pacific in February, at the Forum Leaders’ Retreat in Fiji, Kiribati president, Taneti Maamau, said that Pacific leaders ‘have a duty as a Pacific family’ to stick together. “In unity we will surely succeed,” he said . But with 18 sovereign nations in one Pacific family, there are bound to be differences. When asked if the Forum family remains fractured Tongan Prime Minister, Hu’akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni, the Forum’s incoming Chair, said ‘No we are not’. He said that a ‘misunderstanding’ surrounding former Nauru president Baron Waqa had been smoothed over. Hu’akavameiliku described the outcome of the 52nd leaders’ summit as “a good way forward”. NEW FIJI GOVERNMENT This Christmas marked one year in government for Sitiveni Rabuka’s People’s Alliance Party and his coalition partners, the National Federation Party led by Biman Prasad and SODELPA led by Viliame Gavoka. Despite their slim one-member-majority and reports of internal friction, the coalition partners have so far managed to work together. Some of their notable actions include the converting of all student debts in the country to bond agreements, repealing the previous administration’s restrictive Media Act, re-establishing the Great Council of Chiefs, and issuing a National Apology to Indo-Fijians for the racist coups in 1987 and the year 2000. One of the biggest criticisms of the new government has been in its appointments. Critics have accused the administration of giving preferential treatment to indigenous Fijians over Indo-Fijians and expatriates. Former prime minister Frank Bainimarama and his opposition Fiji First Party is still the largest single party in parliament. However, they no longer hold power in Fiji after 16 years in charge. In February, Bainimarama was suspended from parliament for a year for breaking parliamentary privilege when he criticised the Prime Minister and the President of Fiji. He eventually resigned from Parliament, as did his right-hand man Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum who resigned as general secretary of their political party. FUKUSHIMA WATER DISCHARGE The release of treated water, from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, into the Pacific Ocean is a contentious issue. The water was contaminated after being used to cool the melted reactor core after it was damaged following a tsunami in 2011. It was then treated and stored. However, the Tokyo Electric Power Company “TEPCO” ran of out storage space, leading to the discharge of over one million tonnes of the water, into the Pacific Ocean. The discharge began in August. Japan maintains that, after consultation, this is the most viable option and it is safe. Some voices in the Pacific have raised concerns about the discharge. Tahitian anti-nuclear activist Hinamoeura Cross, who says she developed leukemia as a result of radiation from French nuclear testing, expressed dismay regarding the discharge. Following the 52nd leaders’ summit, the Pacific Islands Forum commented that: “Leaders recalled the strong concerns by Forum Leaders for the significance of the potential threat of nuclear contamination to the health and security of the Blue Pacific,” The town has started reopening. AUKUS Concerns were raised that a new security agreement between the Aukus parties ( the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia ) may breach the Treaty of Rarotonga. The Treaty, ratified in 1986, prohibits the use, testing, or possession of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. The agreement will allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, under pillar one. Pillar two of the agreement looks to enhance the defense capabilities of the parties in the region, and share important technologies. New Zealand is not currently a member of Aukus. The previous Labour government’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said the government was exploring pillar 2, but had not committed to anything and would not compromise its nuclear-free position. Following a meeting in Australia, new PM Christopher Luxon indicated he is interested in exploring how pillar two could benefit New Zealand. COMPACT OF FREE ASSOCIATION The Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and last the Marshall Islands each signed their 20-year Compacts of Free Association packages with the USA. The bilateral agreements between the US and the three Pacific nations allow its citizens to travel and seek work, education, and other services. The Marshall Islands was the last to signed as it had been unhappy with the initial deal.