NOOSA - When the US Coast Guard sailed into Fairfax Harbour, Port Moresby, last Thursday morning to be welcomed by Papua New Guinea’s defence minister Win Daki, there was at least one person feeling disgruntled.
“We are getting ourselves into a serious blunder of a lifetime,” said business leader and national affairs commentator, Corney Alone.
Coast Guard Cutter Stratton has spent two months in the Pacific combating illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat.
Stratton and its crew were in PNG, according to statement from US Coast Guard District 14 based in Hawaii, as representatives of the Coast Guard and United States.
“Both the US and PNG are interested in signing a bilateral agreement to codify the two states' strategic partnership in the Pacific,” the statement said.
But Corney Alone is far from impressed. “Why do we have to sign away our sovereign rights to known bandits and terrorists in the guise of maritime surveillance?” he said to PNG Attitude.
He was referring to a 2017 incident in which the crew of the 32-foot fishing vessel, Josette, was caught in the Caribbean Sea in an effort by the US to stop drug smuggling.
The four Jamaican fishermen were detained for nearly a month aboard US Coast Guard vessels after the crew claimed to have seen them toss packages of marijuana into the water and to have subsequently recovered a large quantity of the drug.
The men spent much of their time in custody chained to the deck of vessels while their families believed they were dead.
“There are no human rights out there,” one of the fishermen, Luther Patterson told Associated Press. “They treat you like animals. You are like an animal ... chained to the deck on your foot.”
When the men finally reached a US courtroom, they were not convicted of a drug crime because no drugs had in fact been found on the boat; which the Coast Guard had torched and sunk.
Instead they were charged with lying to investigators, pleading guilty because their lawyer told them it was the fastest way to get home. They then served a year in a US gaol.
“This case was not an isolated incident,” Steven Watt, a senior lawyer with the American Council for Civil Liberties, told The Atlantic magazine.
So while the Coast Guard said its visit to PNG is about “promoting security, safety, sovereignty and economic prosperity in Oceania while strengthening relationships between partner nations in the Pacific”, Corney Alone is not convinced.
“Our brothers and sisters from the Caribbean Islands have been subjected to horrendous abuses and ill-treatment by the American Coast Guard,” he said.
“Other violations in Haiti, Cuba and rest of the Caribbean islands where [there is] outright abuse of human rights by the Americans should give us sufficient reason not to engage these terrorists and destructive forces in our maritime zones.
“America's destructive interventions in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and the rest of the world should give us sufficient reasons to pause, think and assess critically before considering these types of so-called agreements.”
Meanwhile the Operation Blue Pacific Patrol spokesman, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew West, said the Coast Guard’s visit to PNG was part of its “mission to combat IUU fishing is essential in protecting maritime governance and a rules-based international order to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“The fisheries industry is a significant source of food and income throughout the Pacific.
“Protecting this renewable resource is a priority for the United States and Pacific Island Countries,” West said.
Meanwhile the ACLU’s Steven Watt told The Atlantic: “The Coast Guard’s current practices have echoes of its Prohibition-era efforts against rumrunners at sea, which involved taking aggressive enforcement measures.”
Associated Press, ‘4 Jamaican fishermen detained on Coast Guard ships’ by Colleen Long, 13 June 2019. https://apnews.com/article/500e6c2272d34298b5503c26fd5ae688
The Atlantic, ‘ACLU alleges Coast Guard detained and abused fishermen’ by Kathy Gilsinan, 13 June 2019
US Indo-Pacific Command, US Coast Guard District 14 Hawaii Pacific, ‘Coast Guard Cutter Stratton on Operation Blue Pacific patrol’ by Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew West, 16 February 2022. https://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/2937603/coast-guard-cutter-stratton-visits-fiji-during-operation-blue-pacific-patrol/
PNG Post-Courier, ‘US Coast Guard to patrol PNG waters’ by Margaret Finkeo, 25 February. https://postcourier.com.pg/us-coast-guard-to-patrol-png-waters/
Statement, ‘PNG maritime coastline disaster in the making’ by Corney Alone, 26 February.
Also by Corney Alone:
PNG Attitude, ‘Warning to Oz: Don’t underestimate PNG’, 5 November 2020. https://www.pngattitude.com/2020/11/warning-to-australia-dont-underestimate-png.html