Commuting to and from Berkman yesterday, I got the chance to catch up on my back episodes of This American Life, accumulating on my iPod since before Christmas. The best of the lot I listened to yesterday was called “The Middle of Nowhere” and featured an essay by Jack Hitt on the mysterious and strange island of Nauru.
I take some pride in my knowledge of obscure geographical facts, but I am forced to admit that, prior to hearing Hitt’s essay, I knew only the following about Nauru:
– it was really small
– it was somewhere in the South Pacific.
Thanks to Hitt’s radio report, I now know enough about Nauru that I plan to keep an eye open for it – and other Pacific micronations – in the future. A Nauru history in a nutshell:
– Nauru is a tiny (26 square kilometer) island about 1000km east of Papua New Guinea. A coral atoll, it was once covered with a thick layer of phosphate, beneath a tropical rainforest.
– In the late 19th century, phosphate was discovered on the island. This led to massive mining efforts by the Germans, the Japanese, the British, and, after independence from Britain in 1968, by an Australian/Nauruian consortium.
– Phosphate mining briefly made Nauru one of the wealthiest developing nations in the world. It also devestated over 90% of the surface of the island, turning it into bare, windswept, uninhabitable rock. The 10,000 residents of Nauru live on the outskirts of the island. As ocean levels rise due to global warming, they are likely to be forced to leave the island altogether.
– Looking for new post-phosphate ways to make money, Nauru became a center for international money laundering in the 1990s. Much of the money pillaged from post-Communist Russia filtered through shell banks in Nauru. (Hitt’s article “The Billion Dollar Shack” is a great introduction to this chapter of Nauruan history.)
– Realizing that one of its remaining “natural assets” was its soverignity, Nauru began selling passports, several of which turned up in the possession of suspected terrorists.
– Under substantial international pressure to end money laundering and identity brokering, Nauru developed a new speciality – detentions. A key player in John Howard’s “Pacific Solution”, Nauru became a prison for hundreds of Afghan, Iraqi and Sri Lankan refugees who Australia refused to accept. Technically termed an “immigration processing center”, many refugees spent years on Nauru, living in camps, waiting for eventual asylum to Australia. Conditions became so bad in the camps that dozens of asylum seekers went on an extended hunger strike, some of them sewing up their mouths to prevent themselves from being forcefed.
This particular business opportunity closed off another possible opportunity to Nauru: tourism. The island has excellent sport fish and scuba diving… but the Australian government was buying secrecy, in part, when it paid Nauru substantial sums to “process” the refugees. As a result, Nauru has stopped issuing tourist visas. This may be all for the best – Nauru Airlines has had its one jet seized (again) by creditors, cutting off the most practical route of reaching the island.
– The country has gone through several changes of government in the past two years. It owes hundreds of millions of dollars to GE Capital, which bankrolled the nation’s property deals for years, has explored a possible bailout by an Indian financial firm, and now has its finances managed by the Australian government.
One of the stories told by Hitt in his radio piece is an extraordinary tale about US intelligence officials, who allegedly promised Nauru an extensive aid package in exchange for ending money laundering and the sale of passports – as well as opening an embassy in China, which the US hoped to use to provide asylum for senior North Korean diplomats, a project called “Operation Weasel”.
Hitt relies on a series of articles written by the Weekend Australian. Unfortunately, those articles appear to have been removed from the Australian’s site. (This might be poor archiving on the paper’s part, or might be because Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s owner, didn’t want the Austalian hosting articles that so strongly implicate the Bush administration…) The best article I’ve been able to find that mentions “Operation Weasel” is in the sidebar of an article by Joshua Brown in the left-wing online paper, the Albion Monitor.
Nauru strikes me as the quintessential 21st century rogue state. It’s not dangerous because it has a big army, nuclear ambitions or plans to invade a neighboring state. It’s dangerous because it chooses not to play by the rules agreed to by most of the world, and because it’s so distant from media eyes that it’s very hard to know what’s going on there. You can imagine a plausible future in which Nauru grows increasingly dangerous as a sovereign rogue even as its population migrates from an unliveable island to more habitable locales – perhaps over time, a real nation will change into a virtual one, like Sealand.