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Micronesian nations to quit Pacific’s peak regional body, leaving it in disarray

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arriving for the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu. Photo: AFP via Australian Prime Minister’s Office/Adam Taylor. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

CANBERRA, Feb 9, 2021, ABC News. Five Micronesian countries have announced they will be leaving the Pacific’s top regional body, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), after Palau late last week said it was quitting over a bitter leadership dispute, ABC News reported.

A communique released today and signed by the leaders of Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) said the nations had agreed to initiate the formal process of withdrawing from PIF.

The move came after former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna won a ballot to become the new secretary-general of PIF, which Micronesian leaders claimed broke a “gentlemen’s agreement”.

Mr Puna won by one vote (9–8) last week, ahead of Marshall Islands’ diplomat Gerald Zackios, the candidate put forward by the five-nation Micronesian bloc.

FSM’s President David Panuelo and his fellow Micronesian leaders claimed the gentlemen’s agreement would have seen a Micronesian candidate appointed as the next PIF secretary-general, after years of Polynesian and Melanesian candidates holding the top job.

In the communique, the leaders of the five Micronesian leaders expressed “great disappointment” with PIF’s appointment process for the secretary-general role.

“There is no value in participating in an organisation that does not respect established agreements, including the gentlemen’s agreement on sub-regional rotation,” the leaders said.

Nauru President Lionel Aingimea, who is also the chair of the Micronesian group at PIF, said in a statement he believed the body had “lost its original intent”.

“The PIF was formed in 1971 and has only been led once by a Micronesian secretary-general in its 50 year history,” he said.

A separate statement from the FSM Government said Mr Panuelo had “expressed frustration” after several Pacific leaders suggested the gentlemen’s agreement “doesn’t exist or that they’ve never heard of it”.

Late last week, Palau announced it was quitting PIF and shutting down its embassy in Fiji in response to the appointment of Mr Puna.

Former Palauan president Tommy Remengesau Jr told the ABC he welcomed the decision by the grouping to leave the PIF.

He said the Micronesian nations, which generally have smaller populations and economies than many nations across Melanesia and Polynesia, were entitled to respect and equality.

“This is something bigger than just the PIF secretary-general position — it’s about respect, it’s about fairness,” he said.

“It’s about gaining respect for the leaders, and for the nations, and what they stand for.”

Tonga’s candidate for Secretary-General, economist Amelia Siamomua, told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program that a split would weaken the region and called on Pacific leaders to try and reach consensus.

“Right now it’s looking pretty grim,” she said.

“We cannot disintegrate and break away just like that, we must persist, we must be optimistic and look at what must be done to bring us back together.”

The controversy has not only strained ties between Pacific Island leaders, it has stirred resentment towards Australia from some Micronesian leaders.

‘Australia understands the disappointment’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne have taken turns representing Australia at the annual Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting.

A statement by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: “Australia understands the disappointment of the Micronesian countries.

“Unity and cooperation across the Pacific are essential as our region faces multiple challenges, especially recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement to the ABC said.

“These are absolute priorities in Australia’s partnerships with its Pacific family, as demonstrated by our Pacific Step-up, our Partnerships for Recovery development pivot, our steadfast commitment to shared COVID-19 recovery including our vaccine program, and the expansion of our diplomatic representation across the region.

“We value highly the Pacific Islands Forum as the region’s pre-eminent organisation. It has a critical role facilitating cooperation, and advocating for Pacific views on the global stage.

“Diversity and regional representation are critical to the Forum. We encourage all members to work together to find a path forward.”

In a statement, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong told the ABC: “A divided Pacific Islands Forum makes tackling the challenges in our region even more difficult.”

“The Morrison Government has made a lot of announcements about its so-called Pacific Step Up, but if Scott Morrison doesn’t finally step up, other countries will fill the leadership vacuum and that could cost us dearly,” she said.

“In the current strategic climate, a strong and united PIF is more essential than ever.”

In a statement, New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it understood the withdrawal would take a year to come into effect, and that it hoped the Micronesian nations would reconsider.

“We value greatly Micronesia’s contribution to the region and hope to continue to work closely together on issues of regional importance, such as climate change and oceans,” it said.

“What confronts us as a region is far greater than any of our differences.”

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