Activism is alive and flourishing in the South Pacific

Written by Allison Pytlak, Control Arms

I recently had the opportunity travel to Fiji for a meeting of the Pacific Small Arms Action Group (PSAAG), the regional body that has been leading the charge on Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) advocacy for the last several years. With 19 members and connections in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, Australia and New Zealand, PSAAG is the only active coordinating civil society network in the Pacific working exclusively on armed violence.

I know what you’re thinking. “You travelled to Fiji…for work?” Well the short answer is “yes” and the slightly longer answer is “I’m so happy to have had the chance.” Here is why:

Fiji and the other islands of the region might be home to gorgeous beaches and lush landscapes, but they are also places where small arms have taken a heavy toll, particularly in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. As noted many times during the ATT negotiations, the impact of small arms has been especially damaging in the Pacific region because of a lack of state capacity, corruption and the illegal sale and diversion of ammunition to armed groups and individuals. Military coups and strong rulers in many places have made it difficult for civil society to operate freely despite a long tradition of both traditional authorities and nongovernmental groups playing key roles in nation-building and community development. The voices of women, young people, marginalised and isolated communities have often been absent from decision-making processes.

Yet despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, I met some of most dynamic and genuinely committed activists that I’ve ever encountered.

From within PSAAG, I met leaders like Helen Hakena, from Bougainville. Her own story of premature child birth in the midst of crisis and witnessing rape as a weapon of war led to her to found the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency. Their slogan “Women weaving Bougainville together” speaks volumes about the central role that women play in society. I was also happy to reconnect with Ema Tagicakibau and James Laki. Both are long-time advocates not only for the ATT but also other disarmament instruments, women’s rights and within the broader peace movement.

Beyond PSAAG, I had the chance to meet with other organizations that confirmed my observations about the strength of Pacific civil society. One local NGO that I met with, Citizen’s Constitution Forum, (CCF) is reaching out to young voters in advance of Fiji’s first democratic elections scheduled for this September. CCF has a long history that goes back to the aftermath of Fiji’s first military coup d’etat in May 1987, which exposed deep divisions in Fiji society. It has, over the years, encountered numerous challenges and public criticisms from the government, including the loss of its charitable status, but continues to resolutely work towards its goals.

I also met with one of the four organizations that are coming together to coordinate the Fiji Women’s Forum. The two Forums have been organized with the goal of increasing women’s participation in the elections both as voters and as candidates and is also a parallel process meant to monitor the state’s roadmap on compliance with all human rights conventions, rights and treaties.

The majority of my day-to-day work is very much at the macro level and the Suva meetings were a unique opportunity to reconnect with the national and the local. Yet while chatting with representatives from the local organizations as well as within the context of the PSAAG regional meeting, I realized that we all experience similar challenges and frustrations, whether it’s the trials of working in coalition or trying to keep our organizations afloat. We also experience similar joys. This underscored for me the added value of working together as coalitions, networks or peers. The impact is far greater and the learning journey all the more rewarding.

I left the trip knowing that the nations of the Pacific will play a critical role in ensuring the Arms Trade Treaty has a positive impact. The activists I met have seen the horrors it is meant to prevent.

And they won’t have it any other way.

Allison Pytlak is the Campaign Manager at Control Arms. Based out of New York, she manages outreach efforts for the coalition, leads advocacy efforts in New York, and helps coordinate global civil society campaign efforts in pursuit of a strong Arms Trade Treaty. Follow her on Twitter @a_pytlak