Arachne: A Literary Journal. No. 1
Pacific Review 2
Pacific Review 2
The South Pacific Commission was the by-product of close wartime collaboration between the allied powers, particularly Australia and New Zealand in the Southwest Pacific, but the idea of regional collaboration behind it was not new. Already it had given birth to the Anglo-American Commission in the Caribbean area in 1942, when strategic and emergency supply problems demanded common solutions. In conception, however, the Anglo-American Commission was a peacetime organisation to promote development and welfare of an area that suffered from poverty and neglect. Meanwhile, the setting up of a similar commission for the South Pacific had been suggested by Lord Hailey at the Institute of Pacific Relations Mount Tremblant Conference, at Quebec in 1942.
The first step was taken by the Australian and New Zealand governments in the Anzac Agreement made in Canberra in 1944. Articles 28 to 31 of this agreement recognised that the principle of trusteeship was applicable to all colonial territories in the Pacific, and that the future welfare of their inhabitants could not be 'successfully promoted without a greater measure of collaboration between the numerous authorities concerned in their control,' particularly with such matters as anthropological investigation, health and educational services and economic development. To this end the two governments undertook to promote the establishment of a South Seas Regional Commission on which all governments with colonial responsibilities in the area should be represented.
However, it was not until late 1946 that ar-rangements to carry out these proposals were really under way. The governments concern-were fully preoccupied with more pressing problems of war and peace. In the interim, an agreement for a co-ordinated South Pacific Health Service between Fiji, the Western Pacific High Commission and New Zealand gave some practical and concrete assurance of a genuine desire to practice regional collaboration.
Finally at the beginning of 1947, the South Seas Conference was convened for the purpose of setting up a regional international organisation. The Canberra Agreement providing for the creation of the South Pacific Commission was worked out and signed by representatives of Australia, France, thepage 29
Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, and later ratified. All of these participating countries were responsible for non-self-governing territories in the Pacific, south of the equator and east of Dutch New Guinea, the area which it was decided to include within the scope of the Commission. Chile and Ecuador, with their dependencies of Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands which could have qualified for membership were not represented. The Kingdom of Tonga, a British protectorate, was considered ineligible, but it was hoped that its future co-operation might be enlisted.
No specific site for permanent headquarters was chosen. Although Sydney from many points of view offered the best facilities, it was considered that it should be in one of the territories directly concerned. This decision reflected the experience of the Caribbean Com-mission which had transferred its original headquarters from Washington to Trinidad. It has been adhered to by the South Pacific Commission which recently selected Noumea in preference to Suva, after a detailed examination of the two sites. This choice should help to identify the island peoples, who have so often suffered from remote control in the past, more intimately with the work of the Commission. New Caledonia in particular should benefit from its influence.
In its structure, functions and powers the South Pacific Commission broadly follows the pattern of the Caribbean Commission as it was reconstituted in 1945. There is a permanent commission of twelve members comprising a senior and junior commissioner from each participating country. The South Seas Conference hoped that each government would appoint at least one commissioner whose services would be available throughout the year, but there was no definite provision for full-time commissioners. So far senior appointments have included the heads of government departments, diplomatic officials, a governor of Fiji and an American professor of anthropology. New Zealand's insistence on the importance of including persons with practical administrative experience in island territories proved convincing, though in practice it has been somewhat nullified by her failure to provide adequate training for her own administrators, and by her fondness for ex-army personnel as her representatives.
The Commission meets at least twice yearly. Following the Caribbean precedent, it is a consultative and advisory body to the six participating governments; its functions are 'to study, formulate and recommend' measures, programmes and policies 'in matters affecting the economic and social developmeent of the non-self-governing territories,' within its scope 'and the welfare and advancement of their peoples.' For these purposes, it is to provide for research, technical assistance and information. It is to ensure the coordination of various projects within the area, and the co-operation of the authorities concerned. Before the Commission was set up it was made plain that it should not interfere in questions of security or politics.
The purely advisory nature of the Commission's powers raises the important question of how effectively it will be able to function. Translated into practical politics, it seems that its resolutions must be acceptable to six different governments, and to sixteen island administrations. Like the Permanent Mandates Commission, its chief weapons seem to be publicity and persuasion; to wield these successfully, will it not need at least an equivalent status, reputation and independent expert membership? Even then, will its advice be so compelling that six governments and sixteen administrations will be prepared to sacrifice traditional policies, or to burden themselves with decisions that may lead to increased expenditure, endless trouble and inconvenience? Again it is unrealistic to suppose that the advice of the Commission will not be subordinated to commercial and strategic considerations. The members of the I.P.R. Conference in 1942 favoured wider and more positive powers for such a commission—'the right to suggest general lines of development for self-governing institutions; the right to receive and the obligation to demand and publish with its own comments reports on the social and economic progress of a dependent people; the right to suggest lines of social and economic policy; the right to make on the spot inspections and investigations of grievances of an indigenous group against the administering power'.1
Then there is this question—is it possible to promote the welfare and development of dependent peoples without becoming involved in political affairs? If welfare measures are
1 Quoted by E. Beaglehole. The South Seas Regional Commission,
of island communities too small to stand alone in the modern world, yet unlikely to join in a political federation.
Arrangements are now in hand for the holding of the first Conference at Suva in the last week of April, 1950. It is to be attended by two representatives from the designated territories of Papua, New Guinea, New Caledonia and Dependencies, French Oceanic Establishments, Netherlands, New Guinea, Western Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, British Solomon Islands Protectorate, Gilbert Islands, Ellice Islands, American Samoa, the New Hebrides and probably the Kingdom of Tonga. The tiny islands, Nauru and the Tokelaus will have one representative each. There is also provision for alternates and advisers up to a total of thirty-four.
When the cultural diversity and varying stages of development of these sixteen territorial units is considered and compared with the more compact and homogeneous islands of the Caribbean, this seems a bold and unique experiment. The difficulties involved have been well appreciated and it is intended to keep the first Conference agenda as simple as possible. Discussions on village sanitation, subsistence crops, fisheries and their improvement, co-operative movements and land usage have been suggested provisionally. One interesting development at the first West Indian Conference that may have repercussions in the Pacific was the recommendation to include in the membership of the Commission representatives from the Caribbean territories themselves. Since then the British have adopted the procedure of appointing two official and two unofficial representatives, the latter being selected by the British unofficial delegates to the second West Indian Conference.
For day to day administration, and from the continuity lacking in the South Pacific Commission itself, there is a permanent secretariat comprising a Secretary-general, Deputy and staff selected primarily for their technical qualifications and personal integrity. As far as possible it is intended to select staff from the local inhabitants of the South Pacific area 'with a view to obtaining equitable national and local representation.' Eventually this should offer some incentive to island peoples to seek the training and qualifications needed to fill such positions. The members of the secretariat as well as the full time members of the Research Council are given international status to protect them political entanglements with outside authorities.
Financial resources for the commission are contributed by the participating governments as follows: Australia 30 per cent.; the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom each 15 per cent.; France and the United States each 12½ per cent. Finance has already proved one of the most complicated aspects of the Commission's work. The 1949 budget 'though it was drawn up with the greatest stringency and economy' and represented 'little more than the regular administrative budget'1 exceeded the upper limit imposed by present Congressional legislation setting a maximum on the American contribution. Problems have also been encountered when making provision for long term research projects.
The relationship of the Commission to other international bodies is one of co-operation, mutual assistance and the avoidance of duplication of effort. In principal it favours direct representation at international conferences bearing on its own work, as long as its own projects should have prior claim on the time of its officers.
Although the growth of the South Pacific Commission has so far been slow and beset by organisational and financial problems the foundations have been firmly laid. The pre-paratory tasks of setting up machinery, securing staff and buildings have been performed. Plans for future research work and for the first South Pacific Conference are well under way. Despite the limitations on its powers and the difficulties of its work over such a wide and diverse area, there are clearly defined fields in which it promises to be of great value. In the past many of the South Sea islands have been the backwaters of larger colonial empires, or the dependencies of small countries such as New Zealand unable to provide the resources needed for their well being. For these reasons alone, as well as for the more obvious benefits to be gained from common action, the Commission has an important role to play in postwar developments in the South Pacific.
1 F. M. Keesing, The South Pacific Commission Makes Progress, in the Department of State Bulletin, Vol. xxi, No. 522, pp. 842-3.