Oceania, comprising the Australian continent and the islands, large and small, to the north and east across the Pacific, is vast in its spatial extent but small in population relative to other parts of the globe. It is, nonetheless, rich and diverse in language, culture and religion. Scattered islands, impenetrable mountain terrain, ancient and modern migrations, have all contributed to this intricate pattern of peoples. Inhospitable or specific climatic conditions contribute to the localization of cultures. On the island of New Guinea alone upwards of 700 languages are spoken. Pre-invasion Australia contained some 500 languages belonging to 31 language groups. The colonial period has also left an indelible imprint. European colonizers in Australia and New Zealand reduced the indigenous peoples to minorities, resulting in the widespread destruction of cultures. The importation of Asians into Fiji is the origin of Fiji’s current ethnic conflict. Further, unlike most regions, the colonial presence is still remarkably strong. A variety of non-Oceanic powers hold sway through various forms of association with the region’s territories: Australia, Britain, Chile, France, Indonesia, New Zealand and the USA maintain links with the Pacific in colonies, trust territories, association agreements or simple integration with the metropolis. Self-determination is therefore a major issue, though demands for its application do not always amount to demands for complete separation; for small peoples the burdens of independence may be heavy.

There are various minority situations. Whole States such as Papua New Guinea are, in effect, composed of minorities. The indigenous peoples are a minority in Australia and New Zealand. The extensive colonization produces what is the region’s strongest characteristic minority issue: the relationship between the indigenous and the colonizers, although this is not always straightforward, as in Fiji. Nonetheless, in the great majority of cases, it is the indigenous who have suffered, and continue to suffer, deprivations of human rights.

The intensity and scope of minority deprivation varies. Where the original colonization was on the basis of the doctrine of terra nullius (a pretence that the land was uninhabited), the indigenous group has no basis for the reactivation of historic treaties, since none existed. On the other hand, such treaties as the Treaty of Waitangi (below) can act as a starting point for land and other claims. The position of the indigenous minority is thus considerably stronger in the latter than in the former case. This depends, of course, on the willingness of the state apparatus to countenance contemporary claims. Australia and New Zealand do not now appear to pursue policies of assimilation of their indigenous peoples in contrast to the recent past and attempt to recognize their contribution to the wider society. Indonesia continues to practise policies of forced assimilation and displacement of minorities, and probably genocide, in the case of East Timor. The violation of East Timor’s right of self-determination is a clear transgression of international law, declared to be such by the United Nations; regrettably, its illegal occupation may eventually be accepted as a fait accompli by the international community as indignation is replaced by considerations of Indonesia’s political and economic importance. The East Timorese may suffer the fate of many other small minorities in large and aggressive States.

Instruments on Minority Rights

There is no specific regional treaty on Human Rights and adherence to multilateral treaties on human rights is uneven. Small States such as Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are not parties to any relevant human rights treaty. Fiji is not a party to either International Covenant on Human Rights, although it has signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Of the larger States, Australia and New Zealand have an excellent record of participation in treaties, though they have declined to become parties to the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention on the ground that it represents an outdated, patronising view. The non-participation in much of international human rights law by Indonesia is a serious blemish. Indonesia has neither signed nor ratified the UN Covenants on Human Rights. It is not a party to the Racial Discrimination Convention (although it has signed the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education); nor the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Indonesia is party to bilateral agreements with the Netherlands and the Peoples’ Republic of China regarding choice of nationality by the Chinese of Indonesia.

The constitutional and sub-constitutional law of Oceania is the product of local conditions. The treaty between the colonial power and indigenous groups along the model of treaties in North America (see introduction to that section) makes an appearance in the New Zealand Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 (see Appendix 9.1) and the Treaty of Rapanui (1888) concerning Chile and the Easter Islanders. Such instruments may have contemporary relevance. Thus the treaty of Waitangi purported to hand over sovereignty (the British view) or government (the Maori text) in return for guarantees that the Maori would retain undisturbed possession of their lands, estates, forests and fisheries. This forms a basis for the enforcement of various land and resource claims currently active in the New Zealand courts. In broad constitutional terms, while some States adopt a basic non-discrimination/human rights for all formula, the use of separate electoral rolls for different groups is also represented. New Zealand adopts a system which allows for Maoris to choose the roll on which they wish to register, but the system in Fiji raises questions in terms of its rigidity (individuals do not have a choice about the roll on which they are inscribed) and preferences towards indigenous Fijians. Forms of communalism are adopted to deal with ethnic relations, and membership of particular groups carries legal consequences. Fiji has been questioned by the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination (CERD) about its legal arrangements. Various forms of autonomy are also in evidence, sometimes as a substitute or temporising measure in the face of claims to self-determination: the case of Bougainville in relation to Papua New Guinea is one instance.

Treatment of minorities

States such as Indonesia consciously implement policies of forced assimilation, in this case “Indonesianiza-tion”. Such policies are generally correlated with overall low standards in human rights, a point that is amply confirmed by other cases of minority oppression, from Ethiopia and Iran to Paraguay and Turkey. Nor can past policies of assimilation and genocide be undone; the Aborigines of Australia are a case in point. The imperatives must be to preserve and develop what remains of a unique culture, and provide full citizenship and human dignity to degraded people on the edge of society. Fiji provides a different issue: how far are indigenous people entitled to go in defence of their authenticity and self-determination when the non-indigenous settlers are victims? For the rest, the imperative of autochthonous rule confronts the remnants of colonialism with an uncertain outcome: is independence always the best, most rational policy for a small people? Will economic imperialism outlast old-fashioned colonialism? The fate of the indigenous minorities and small peoples are central issues in the future politics and development of Oceania.

Aboriginal Australians

Chamorros of Guam

Cocos (Keeling) Islanders

East Timorese

Indian Fijians

Kanaks of New Caledonia

Maori of New Zealand


Nauruans and Banabans

Papua New Guinea

Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Tahitians of Polynesia1