Amidst a clear blue sea with vibrant coral, through the smoke of an active volcano, past lush green jungles, over vast green fields adorned with huts and coastal homes on stilts to a city with tall buildings, Papua New Guinea is a raw land of many natural and manmade contrasts. It is where Julian Aguon, attorney and founder of Blue Ocean Law (BOL) finds himself in deep discussion with local freedom fighters. They’ve been sitting for hours talking about the liberation of the people, of human rights laws, the cultures of the islands, black magic, the highlands, and shamans (witch doctors). They converse about the outside forces that affect their island, their culture, and their way of life. Julian is there to hear their story, and to help them tell it as well as protect it.
BOL is the only firm on Guam that specializes in international human rights law. Aguon is licensed to practice law on Guam, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Through strategic partnerships, BOL is also able to provide legal consulting services in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tonga. “Being a human rights lawyer trying to protect the rights of indigenous communities is exciting,” says Aguon. “It’s not just meaningful, it’s also thrilling on the imaginative level. I get to see, on display, different versions of what it means to be human on this planet, and that is awesome. It’s what we’re trying to protect.”
One of the biggest projects that BOL is currently tackling is the new global gold rush: deep-sea mining. The ocean is home to staggering amounts of mineral wealth, and huge multinational companies and conglomerates are racing to exploit the resources at the bottom of the sea. BOL’s intersection with this issue is that the location of these sites is on or around the maritime boundaries of the pacific countries.
Indonesia beating a tired drum. Jus cogens trump territorial integrity every time. https://t.co/NN87YlhIRO— Julian (@julian_aguon) October 2, 2016
In Papua New Guinea, there is already a company engaged in exploratory work off coastal waters. Several indigenous communities report a negative impact on ancient cultural and traditional practices such as Shark Calling, where young men go out and lure sharks through incantation (chants) and a bamboo instrument that mimics the sound of fish on the water. It’s a custom that dates back several millennia, but fewer and fewer sharks are appearing due to the dust and the excessive noise of just the pre-mining phase.
“Boys are being denied this right of passage, which in turn affects other societal links,” says Aguon. “Links in a chain that has been in existence for thousands of years. Their very future and survival as a distinct cultural group is being threatened, which makes it a human rights issue.” BOL, when it comes to seabed mining, exists at the intersection of international environmental law and international human rights law, melding these two bodies of law together. They’re human rights practitioners that are arming communities with a deeper awareness of their rights, trying to advance the rule of law in these areas, and pushing these countries towards better practices and a better solution.
The Marshall Islands is another country whose people’s way of life has been threatened. From 1946 to 1958 the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the area. Aguon describes that intensive nuclear bombing campaign as the worst in human history. The radioactive yield was equivalent to roughly more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. Aguon said the impact includes a high level of miscarriages, radiogenic cancers, diseases, and birth abnormalities.
Julian Aguon meets with President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands.
BOL is committed to helping the Marshall Islands diversify their international and domestic legal and political strategies in the overall broader pursuit of justice. They are helping to find remedies for harms from environmental cleanup to healthcare. The group is working with local organizations, as well as with former Marshallese Foreign Minister Tony de Brum, who was nominated, along with his legal team, for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the Marshall Islands’ nuclear legacy.
The impact of climate change on smaller pacific islands is another big threat the firm is tackling. International law requires certain criteria for a country to qualify as a state. If you don’t have a landmass or a territory impacted by the rising sea levels, you lack sovereignty. “We’re (BOL) engaged in this conversation among law scholars around the world in what qualifies as a nation state. If you lose one of the essential elements of statehood there’s a question open if you even qualify to be one. People can lose their whole countryhood,” explains Aguon. “Climate change is a huge global problem and needs a global solution.”
BOL is not your typical law firm. Its workweek can consist of a series of Skype calls with four to six countries, hours in a café brainstorming, or office discussions reviewing current projects. It has grown in two ways: hiring an associate, Julie Hunter, and establishing the only internship program on Guam linked with Harvard and Yale. Their next goal is to establish a scholarship program for young creative people in the pacific region.
Aguon is dedicated to human rights in the Pacific.
When Aguon isn’t in the BOL office he’s working as a law professor at Richardson School of Law in Hawaii or writing his latest novel, his fourth book actually, but his first fiction. His previous efforts focused on issues of colonization, militarism, and neocolonialism in Guam and Micronesia. “It’s not that fiction is safer, but that it is more powerful than this other medium,” explains Aguon. “You almost get to smuggle in controversy in a safe place. A fiction writer is a thief in the night.”
Aguon believes that you are your experiences. “My whole life motto is to eat the world,” he says. “I set out since I was 17 in any way I could to get as much life experience as I can. Eat all the foods, travel, and see the world.” He has done just that, having spent a summer working in Calcutta, India at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute; working in Fiji with a crippled children’s society; living in Bali for two months writing his first non-fiction novel; performing the national anthem when then President Bill Clinton visited Guam; guest lecturing on international human and indigenous rights law across several countries and all the places and experiences working for BOL.
Taking guidance and inspiration from his mother, beloved authors, fellow scholars, and even from artist Bob Marley, Aguon has made his goal in life to be of use to humankind. He continues to look for ways to liberate people and to be liberated by the world around him, as he expands his law firm’s reach to more of the blue continent, completes the scholarship program for creative minds in the Pacific, and finishes his novel. “A liberated person’s very being liberates others. It is like a match—if you are alive you have the capacity to ignite another. It is how I live my life and how I run my firm. Our time on this earth is so short that you have to light it up and light up one another,” says Aguon.
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