PACNEWS – 01:52 am GMT+12, 07/10/2020, Fiji
Much has been said and reported in the media recently about the appointment of the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, to replace Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea, who completes her two term in office in January next year. The five-way tussle for the Forum top job has generated strong push-backs amongst Forum member countries – more so for the five Micronesian countries of the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau who are united in their resolve that it’s their sub-regional group’s turn to nominate the next Secretary General.
PACNEWS Editor, Makereta Komai sat down in a conversation with the Republic Marshall Islands Ambassador to Fiji, Ambassador Albon Ishoda to unpack and provide context to the position of the Micronesian sub-regional group in advocating the appointment of its candidate, Ambassador Gerald Zackios, for the Pacific Islands Forum top job.
Makereta Komai: Let’s begin this conversation on the decision by the Micronesian Leaders last week to consider reviewing their membership of the Pacific Islands Forum if their candidate doesn’t get the Forum top job. What does this mean for regionalism?
Ambassador Albon Ishoda: Let me provide some historical background to the conversation. In Palau in 2014, we had a candidate, the late Tony deBrum and we withdrew it to allow for regional solidarity. At the same time we also recognised our candidacy came late into the process, so we didn’t want to compromise the integrity of the Forum process. Certainly the chair could have forced the candidate in but at the same time in the spirit of the Pacific Way, we recognised and respected the decision to allow one sub-regional group to decide the next Secretary General (SG). As we know it now, the two leaders of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea from the Melanesia sub-regional group decided on the next SG and we supported that decision.
For us it has always been important that we have an SG that has the full support of the region’s Leaders and the full membership of the Pacific Islands Forum – because ultimately the SG manifests the decision of the Leaders. He or she will not only support one country over another and take its issues forward but will act on behalf of the members.
Makereta Komai: The issue of the sub-region’s candidate for the forum job was again on the agenda of the Micronesian Leaders’ Summit in Palau last week?
Ambassador Albon Ishoda: When the Leaders met in Palau last week, as you understand, three of the five leaders were able to meet in person and two of them joined remotely into the conversation. The main agenda was off course COVID19 and the opportunity to demonstrate what we can do amongst ourselves with our COVID free status. How do we find opportunities that we can use to create corridors amongst ourselves and perhaps other Pacific countries that are COVID free to continue to trade and provide services to each other, instead of just coming to a standstill until we come up with a vaccine? That was a very big part of their conversation and the demonstration to the rest of the Pacific and the world that although everyone is talking about it, we wanted to demonstrate that in this day and age we can adapt and find ways that will still be safe for our communities but at the same time allow us to slowly recover.
Obviously the second most important item on the agenda was the Secretary General’s post because they’ve never felt this much push-back in the process. We understand what happened in Palau, ultimately it was up to one sub-region to decide. Last year if you recall, Micronesian Leaders put up their candidate. This was how prepared and committed they were – also understanding that at the end of the day it was their sub-region’s turn. Instead of waiting to have that conversation at a Leaders Retreat, they wanted to make sure they were agreeing to one candidate moving forward. They met in Palau and endorsed Ambassador Zackios and if you recall there were three new Presidents in Micronesia. They met in New York where the new President of Nauru and President of FSM came in and endorsed the candidate. Then we had our new president in Marshall Islands and the re-election of President Taneti Mamaau of Kiribati – they both reiterated their support for Ambassador Zackios as the candidate for Micronesia. At all opportunities, Micronesian Leaders have demonstrated their solidarity behind their candidate – understanding that the expectation is that the principle of regionalism and allowing for inclusive participation into the Forum family process. Mind you people have this misconception that the Secretary General controls who the region deals with. This is far from the truth. The political agenda of the region is determined by the Leaders and the SG reports to them and the members. Ultimately, whoever the SG is, manifests and act on the Leaders decision.
Makereta Komai: There have been references to the ‘gentlemen’s agreement that members must respect – that is causing a lot of the push back from members.
Ambassador Albon Ishoda: The idea for us is the symbology of having one of our own being in there to take the prestigious role to lead the region. It reminds us that we are members of larger Pacific family. That’s critical because we cannot just claim to be part of family if we are not actively participating. I have been asked what happens if Micronesia doesn’t get the SG position. The Leaders made it clear that they will have to look at their participation, whether it is still relevant for them and relevant for the region because right now they are having to explain to their communities why they don’t deserve to be in this post and their communities demand to know why. There’s a lot of conversations and side chatters about the North vs South, East vs West, the U.S vs China or the Commonwealth. I think those are just background noises.
If you look closely at the Micronesian sub-region for example – two of our members are affiliated with China and three of us are with Taiwan and still they are united. If you look at their historical affiliations – three are affiliated with the U.S and two of us are with the Commonwealth. At one point there was the conversation about the DSG being from Marshall Islands. One thing I need to emphasise is that we are proud of our son of Marshall Islands, Dr Filimon Manoni, the incumbent Deputy Secretary General and strongly feel that his appointment was based on merit. He remains one of our shining example of our sub regional contribution to our larger region. The post of SG is the political manifestation of our Leaders. If the point is we cannot have SG and DSG from the same region, let alone same country, what’s happening now – the current SG is from PNG and the DSG is a citizen of PNG. And we’ve had multiple DSG and SGs who have dual citizenship with Australia and New Zealand. So that argument goes out the door. The next argument then becomes, we need a high calibre candidate. Frankly I think the way I hear it is – your five leaders are not qualified to make a selection for an SG. That’s how I hear that. As Pacific peoples, I don’t want to jump into a debate on who is more qualified or not for this highly politicised position. But that side, we’ve always said that it should be merit based. Our candidate is currently an Ambassador in the U.S, a former Foreign Affairs Minister, and former director of the Pacific Community (SPC) north office. The network that Ambassador Zackios has built – not just in the U.S but within the international community has prepared him for this role.
Having all these things thrown at us – I guess the Leaders felt why is this happening to us? Why is it that when we want to put in a candidate, and we are seeing a lot of push-backs. I thinks it justifies them questioning their role in the Forum family.
Makereta Komai: The former PM of Cook Islands, Henry Puna, also a candidate for the SG post, is saying that this should be now thrown out and a decision should be on merit. Talk me through this gentlemens’ agreement, how this came about – that the SG’s post should be on rotational sub-regional basis?
Ambassador Albon Ishoda: Historically as I understand it, the gentlemen’s agreement fits in quite perfectly with the way we look at regionalism as a whole – every sub-region deserves an opportunity to lead and the last thing we want is to have an SG without the full support of the membership. It’s not going to be a good start for an SG. As Pacific people one of the things that separate us from the rest of the world is our ability to listen to each other and try to understand each other. The gentlemen’s agreement may not be as valuable to others but it is valuable to us.
If Micronesia decides to pull out – who benefits from a divided Pacific especially in such a critical time where we see such high leverage on the geopolitical security and the climate conversations. Some people question us – what does Micronesia contribute to this? I can say that in climate change, Micronesia has been known to lead the climate conversation globally for a long time. Right now RMI is putting up a paper for support from Forum Officials Committee (FOC), through the UN agencies, UN Human Right Council to call for the establishment of a special rapporteur on climate change to look at the human rights implications on statehood etc. These are the sorts of issues that RMI and Micronesian countries have taken the lead on. For climate action, as small as we’ve put up our revised NDCs, we’ve put up our 2050 strategy for carbon neutral and we are leading the conversation in the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), as one of the world’s largest registries – to have IMO transition into low carbon, invest in research and technologies that will help accelerate that transition and replicate those technologies in our region that depends so much on maritime transport.
Makereta Komai: What happens now – it appears there is strong sense of unity and solidarity amongst the five Micronesian Leaders and they will not move from their position?
Ambassador Albon Ishoda: I think at the end of the day, the question is back to our brothers and sisters from the region – members of the Pacific Islands Forum – how much do they value the solidarity of this region. How much value they will put into the principles of regionalism, how much value they will put into inclusivity? For us, we are now explaining to the people in the Pacific our position. We want to remind members that if we set a precedent here, what’s next? We are going to be guided by how the Chair instructs the process. We will provide our feedback and contribution through that process but we will continue to put the message forward that it’s one of the things that we have to decide now – on how we move forward as a region. Currently, there is a feeling of disenfranchisement but most definitely we will see fragmentation. That’s the worst case scenario for us.
Makereta Komai: This conversation needs to happen now as Leaders start to discuss the region’s 2050 Strategy.
Ambassador Albon Ishoda: I think the only place they can make a decision to change is through their own Leaders dialogue. If they agree and say let’s just put it in word and we are going to have a rotation – that’s up to them. All we can do is help advice but ultimately it’s up to our Leaders to decide how they want to move forward. But to use the ambiguity of the process to push in something that may end up the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. And then you look at other regional processes – the USP for example. It’s sad because the USP as a regional university was one of the beacons of regionalism and created great leaders across the Pacific. We were proud of our regional university. We never said it belonged to Fiji because it was based here, it was all our regional university. The question the leaders are left with is whether there is higher value in having a united region versus a divided region.