Navigating Nauru: Authoritarianism Under The Waqa Government

After fighting Nauru’s Waqa government for the past 5 years, ex-president Sprent Dabwido has passed away, leaving the remaining members of the Nauru 19 leaderless as they await their appeal decision.

Dabwido served as President of Nauru between 2011-2013 and signed the controversial deal with then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard which saw the restarting of offshore processing in Nauru. He passed away in Armidale, New South Wales, at the age of 46 while undergoing treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer. His friend and former foreign minister, Mathew Batsuia, said Dabwido was “brave and outspoken,” and that his blood was on the hands of the Waqa government, claiming they had denied him government funded overseas medical treatment. So far the Nauru government has made no response to these claims, but it has long been asserted that the government has refused passports to members of the opposition. This was especially directed at the Nauru 19, of whom Dabwido was the leader. This group of opposition and ex-MPs are currently awaiting a Court of Appeal decision over whether they can be prosecuted for their involvement in anti-government protests that took place in 2015. Their Australian lawyer, Christian Hearn, said at the start of May that the ongoing ordeal had left the 19 “essentially penniless” and emotionally exhausted. “They’ve had this hanging over their heads for four years and have been suffering the indignity of having it play out in public.”

The Nauruan government has been consistent over the past few years in its disregard for an independent judicial system. That the Nauru 19 were hoping to access the High Court in Australia is unsurprising; they have no likelihood of a fair hearing when the Nauruan government is so heavily engaged. Their continued meddling in what are supposed to be independent organs of state will not have any positive effect; while the government seems to think that showing a strong front against protestors will endear them to the people and prevent any future reoccurrences, it will likely have the opposite effect.

Of the 19 Nauruan opposition politicians who were initially embroiled in legal proceedings after the 2015 anti-government protests, 15 are still awaiting the ruling of the Court of Appeal. In September 2018, Australian judge Geoff Muecke was brought in especially, only to acquit them all. Muecke called out the government’s abuse of the court process, condemning the protracted length of time the 19 have been in limbo for. He also accused the state of stopping their legal representation and of persecuting and intimidating defendants. The government has since quietly withdrawn from a 1976 treaty it had with Australia, which had placed Australia’s High Court as Nauru’s highest court of appeal. Nauru subsequently established its own court of appeal as another avenue for the government. Muecke stated in his ruling that this is a “shameful affront to the rule of law,” as the government has already decided they are guilty, and seems intent on spending whatever necessary to ensure a conviction. The New Zealand Law Society has also weighed in, claiming that new laws passed in 2018 limit freedoms and erode civil rights. The Administration of Justice Act in particular has redefined contempt of court as anything which scandalises either a judge, a court or attacks the justice system in any way – preventing anyone from speaking out.

The attempts of the Nauruan government to control the justice system are nothing short of abhorrent. They highlight a growing feeling that the island government is gradually shifting towards authoritarianism. There is a real danger, should this situation not be resolved satisfactorily and in the near future, of Nauru becoming a modern authoritarian regime almost overnight. Opposition members and the general public should not balk at speaking out against their government for fear of arrest or imprisonment. Above all, the government must separate itself from the judiciary to ensure respect for the institution and the rule of law – rather than the rule of the government.

Henry Whitelaw