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Pacific Islands Forum split could cost region’s global role

Muri Lagoon in the Cook Islands Photo: Rafael Ben-Ari/ 123RF. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

AUCKLAND, Feb 14, 2021, RNZ. Breaking up the Pacific Islands Forum would be a lost opportunity to cement the region’s global leadership on climate change and ocean conservation, Radio New Zealand reported.

That’s according to Pasifika academic Damon Salesa who is Auckland University’s pro-vice chancellor Pacific, speaking in the wake of a major split that has opened up within the Forum’s membership.

Micronesian leaders this week announced their intention to formally withdraw their five countries from the premier regional body, after their candidate was snubbed for the organisation’s top job.

The presidents of Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Palau said that South Pacific countries dishonoured a “gentleman’s agreement” to rotate the post evenly among sub-regions.

According to them, the smaller islands of Micronesia are often overlooked by their large Polynesian and Melanesian cousins, with Australia and New Zealand also viewing them as an afterthought.

But Dr Salesa said the Pacific countries needed to move away from the colonial constructs such as branching off into separate groups of ‘Nesians’ which only divided and separated the region.

“What we have seen the Forum emerge as is kind of a global player in moral leadership in the world, particularly with a unified position, or largely unified position, on climate change,” he said.

“With leadership around the oceans and leadership on the Blue Pacific we have seen the emergence of a new platform for the Forum.

“And actually, the fracturing of the Forum threatens that kind of moral leadership that they have almost secured. So I am really concerned about that and I think that is one of the great lost opportunities were this to break up.”

The five Micronesian leaders have signed off on a communique agreeing to initiate the formal process of withdrawing from the Forum. However, even if they follow through, it is a year-long process.

The twelve-month hiatus offers a crucial window to address the split, according to Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, the Director of the Centre for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

“I do hope in the period from now until the actual withdrawal that a Pacific leader or a few Pacific leaders would step up and say okay, let’s get the Micronesian countries together, and let’s sit down and talk through this and try and find ways to resolve it.”

Dr Kabutaulaka said a solution may be found in the people-to-people connections that bind island countries and communities in the Pacific.

“Oftentimes and particularly when we focus on the Pacific Islands Forum we define regionalism only in terms of intergovernmental organisations. But regionalism in the Pacific goes beyond just intergovernmental organisations it includes relationships between people, relationships between church organisations.”

“So when I am talking about leaders here I am referring not only to our political leaders but also to our leaders in other sectors of society,” Dr Kabutaulaka said.

“I think that despite what is happening at the Forum that network of regional cooperation between people and non state organisations continues to exist and continues to be strong. And that is something that we could build on inorder to resolve disagreements between leaders in a intergovernmental organisation.”

Australia and New Zealand have been identified by Micronesian leaders as part of the problem at the Forum.

When leaders of Forum countries were unable to reach consensus over the appointment over who to appoint as secretary-general at last week’s online summit, the matter went to a vote.

The vote was by secret ballot but Micronesian leaders have since accused Australia and New Zealand of swinging the vote the way of the former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna who pipped the Marshall Islands diplomat Gerald Zackios by 9 votes to 8.

Dr Salesa said the position of Australia and New Zealand in the Forum had always a bit problematic.

“One of the concerns people might have had was that the influence of Australia and New Zealand had been producing problems of its own, and now were Australia and New Zealand to sort of intervene they would sort of be proving that line of criticism true that they are more than just equal members of the Forum.

“So they are going to have to be very careful about how this plays out. Even though I think for both Australia and New Zealand they clearly have a strong interest in the Forum staying cohesive and coherent,” Dr Salesa said.

“So I think it is pretty clear what they would probably want in the longer term, which is a functioning Forum which sort of works as a kind of bulwark against certain kinds of intrusions that Australia and New Zealand don’t favour.”

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