- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

Pain in paradise

When most people think of island nations, they see balmy tropical vacations and peaceful isolation.

But for the inhabitants of about four dozen island states, the reality is more like environmental peril, unreliable tourist income and a remoteness so vast that foreign markets are unreachable.

“We associate our thinking with their idyllic natural beauty, but not how vulnerable they are to natural disasters, how fragile they are,” said Anwarul K. Chowdhury, U.N. high commissioner for Small Island Developing States. Starting today, he will preside over a meeting of island officials, donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Although the islands seem from afar like paradise, they are rocked by natural disasters and are under perpetual threat from rising seas. Tourism, for many the only generator of hard currency, is a fickle business, and having a small population hundreds or thousands of miles from major trading centers does not help trade balances.

With official development aid down by one-third in the past six years and tourism still depressed by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, many small islands have found another way to exploit their remoteness: money laundering.

Many of their governments allowed semi-legitimate businesses to flourish in the 1990s and now find it hard to weed out banks that fall short of standards set in anticorruption and antiterrorism treaties.

“There are legal provisions; now it is a global concern,” said Mr. Chowdhury, who once was Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United Nations.

An action program drawn up a decade ago sets out an agenda for small-island governments to integrate into the world economy. That document, which also calls on industrialized nations and NGOs to pitch in, will be under review at a conference in the Bahamas this week.

Belt tightening, too

Another island nation, Japan — the second biggest source of United Nations funds — announced last week that it would seek to cut its share of the U.N. operating budget by more than $700 million, to 15.9 percent, a change that likely will be felt in Washington, the No. 1 contributor to the world body.

Any change would be agreed on in 2006 and kick in for fiscal 2007. The United Nations assesses financial contributions by member states every three years, and Japan’s share was set late last year at 19.5 percent for 2004 to 2006 — just behind 22 percent for the United States.

Tokyo contributed about $263 million to the U.N. general budget in 2003 — nearly one-fifth of the total. The United States is the only country the pays more — more than $300 million in 2003.

A senior Japanese Finance Ministry official told the Kyodo news agency last week that the reduction reflects Tokyo’s fiscal austerity as its decadelong economic slowdown shrinks tax revenues.

Et tu, Canberra?

Now for a big island — or small continent: Australia.

Canberra’s treatment of refugees will come under renewed scrutiny this spring when it assumes the chair of the U.N. Commission for Human Rights.

The independent 53-member group is charged with safeguarding human rights, largely by dispatching rapporteurs to examine adherence to standards or specific violations of the rules. The group hears reports and decides on whether to censure offenders during an annual six-week session that starts in March.

Australia responded angrily last week to criticism from Amnesty International, among others. Its policy of long detentions for asylum seekers, including children, on tiny Nauru in mid-Pacific, has come under fire.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would use its 12 months in charge of the commission to examine practical reforms that would ensure the body remains relevant and responsive.

“Australia has a long-standing commitment to protecting and promoting human rights around the world,” he said.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at UNear@aol.com.

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