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Custom is often employed in South Pacific countries by those who occupy the hegemonic role of defining the post independence national ethos. It is used in a sense that is deeply conservative. It indicates features such as rejection of the central role of the state, anti-reformism, quasi-mystical reverence for the place of tradition and an incrementalist and anti- rationalist view of social change. This usage of custom also lends itself to a kind of ideological blending with the principles of nationalism, a factor which disposes it to the manipulations of those who are concerned with inventing the new post-colonial social and political order. It is this usage of custom with which this article is most concerned.

In a world order dominated by nationalism with its concomitant respect for self-determination, the notions that ‘homosexuals’ and/or ‘homosexual rights’ are Western constructs, and that it would be ethnocentric to develop or impose international human rights standards relating to homosexuality, have significant political force. Invoking custom, therefore, becomes a powerful rhetorical strategy for Pacific lsland nations to use in denying the recognition of homosexuals.

Although custom is used politically by all Pacific lsland nations, this article only examines the ways in which custom is [re)constructed in Vanuatu. Vanuatu provides an excellent subject for several reasons. First, its constitutional structure reflects the dificult tensions between democratic human rights, custom and Christianity that are found in many Pacific lsland nations. Second, several incidents involving homosexuality have been reported in its newspapers over the last few years. In Pacific lsland countries where it is ‘taboo’ to talk about sex, this media coverage provides a very useful way of examining the role that custom plays in shaping society’s attitudes towards homosexuality. Last, Vanuatu, unlike most independent Pacific lsland nations, does not criminalise adult same-sex sexual behaviour, so the criminality of homosexuality is not used in debates about the place of homosexuality in society and the state’s reaction to it.