Reform seen as solution for split Pacific Forum

Leaders were all smiles as they posed in their matching coral shifts for the Pacific Islands Forum family photo at their summit in Tuvalu in 2019. Photo: RNZ / Yvette McCullough

RADIO NZ – 7:19 pm on 9 February 2021

Reform of the Pacific Islands Forum is a realistic solution to the standoff between Micronesia and the rest of the region, according to a former head of the Pacific Community.

The leaders of Nauru, Kiribati,The Marshall Islands, Palau and The Federated States of Micronesia today signed off on a communique agreeing to initiate the formal process of withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum.

The five countries are deeply disappointed with the process which led to the appointment of former Cook Islands prime Minister Henry Puna as the Forum’s new secretary-general over Micronesia’s candidate, Gerald Zackios during a marathon online meeting of Pacific leaders last week.

They say a “gentleman’s agreement” to rotate the Forum’s top position among sub-regions of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia was not honoured when a majority of Forum leaders chose Puna in the leaders’ vote.

Colin Tukuitonga said this was evidence that despite the Forum’s mantra of Pacific regionalism it had always been a marriage of convenience where national interests outweighed regional priorities.

He said the friction at the Forum was a reflection of an erosion of trust and respect between Micronesia in the North Pacific Islands and the countries in the South Pacific Islands.

Calls for Puna to stand down and allow Micronesia’s candidate to take the post were not realistic, Tukuitonga suggested.

He said reforming the way the Forum operates and its rules around things like membership and the selection of the secretary general would be a realistic way forward.

“I think the way to do that is partly to strengthen the sub-regional groupings and have the three heads of the sub-region have equal power and influence, and to tone down the region of the regional body.

“So you only escalate to the regional body big issues that require international attention like climate change. But the influence, decicion-making and all of that happens at the sub-regional level.

His suggestion already has body with sub-regional groupings such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and the Polynesian Leaders Group.

“But they (the MSG) have struggled, I think, partly because the Forum is so dominant. But I think if you change the rules and give more power to the sub-regional groupings, and tone down the power of the Forum that could appease people.”

Tukuitonga said that whatever happened he thought the whole structure and decision-making of the Forum needed to change.

The “gentleman’s agreement” within the Forum had always open to circumstances and negotiation, he said, but described it as an outdated way of doing things.

You need to be much more transparent, you need to have clear criteria. I just don’t think this idea that you could use a gentlemen’s agreement to appoint a role as important as that holds water any more.”

“The way that they’ve selected the SG in the past is unacceptable. So regardless of whatever happens, I think the region realy needs to review the way the secetary-general is chosen.”

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