The uncertain agenda of the Pacific Islands Forum
WITH a focus on economic growth, the central theme of this week’s Pacific Islands Forum is “Small and Far – Challenges for Growth.”
It’s yet another confusing message from the Forum. Just two years ago in Palau, Forum organisers celebrated island nations as “Large Ocean States” rather than isolated, small dots, lost in the vast Pacific.
The late, great EpeliHau’ofa may well be rolling in his grave, as the Forum’s cry of “Small and Far” clashes with his vision of “our sea of islands”, united by the great ocean.
This week’s leaders’ summit is the 47th Forum meeting, and representatives from the 16 member countries are gathering on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
The health and wealth of the oceans remains a key agenda item. Speaking to journalists before the meeting, Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) Director General James Movick said: “Leaders will consider a major report on fisheries policy by a task force of four regional agencies; the Pacific Community (SPC), Forum Secretariat, Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) and FFA.”
The task force recommendations are in response to last year’s call by island leaders for improved economic return from fisheries over the next five years.
As well as enhancing the revenues from tuna fisheries, leaders will discuss reform of long-line fishing policy, and reviews of monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) mechanisms.
Some island officials are concerned New Zealand is trying to undermine the PNA’s successful Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) for allocating tuna fishing rights, but leaders will also be presented with a study of the NZ fisheries quota system as a possible resource management tool.
With New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull both attending an East Asia Summit in Laos before flying to FSM, Papua New Guinea has taken up their traditional big brother role as aerial taxi.
Some delegates from the south west Pacific will now hitch a lift to the Federated States of Micronesia aboard a special Air Niugini service.
A few leaders, however, will be absent from Saturday’s retreat.
Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau Jr. is in the middle of an election campaign, while Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama is maintaining his boycott of the retreat.
It’s a lingering reaction to the Forum’s suspension of Fiji after the 2006 coup, and another step in the Fijian leader’s on-again, off-again engagement with Australia and New Zealand after his victory in the 2014 Fijian elections.
Over the last decade, the Bainimarama government has strengthened economic and political links with a range of developing countries – most notably China, India and Indonesia.
Its growing ties with the Non-Aligned Movement and G77 plus China bloc has paid off: Fiji’s Ambassador to the United Nations Peter Thomson will soon take up his post as President of the UN General Assembly, an unprecedented achievement for a Pacific island nation.
Coming off the glow of Fiji’s rugby gold medal at the Olympics – another first for a Pacific nation – Fiji Foreign Minister RatuInokeKubuabola will carry his country’s voice into this week’s Forum meeting.
With growing ties to Jakarta, Fiji will be eager to blunt momentum from the new Pacific Coalition for West Papua, as Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare coalesces support from the governments of Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Nauru and Tonga, as well as a range of church, community and women’s organisations.
With the possible absence of Sogavare from this Saturday’s leaders’ retreat (the Adventist Sabbath), the West Papua cause may have lost a crucial champion.
Forum leaders will hear a report from outgoing Forum chair Peter O’Neill on the follow-up to last year’s debate over West Papua in Port Moresby.
Indonesia has rejected the Forum’s suggestions for a fact-finding mission to West Papua, concerned the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) is extending its support in the region.
Advocacy for West Papua remains a core priority for civil society groups and was heavily promoted through submissions to the Forum’s new Framework for Pacific Regionalism.
Co-ordinating an NGO discussion in Pohnpei before this week’s summit, EmeleDuituturaga of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations (PIANGO) said: “Decades of conflict, of human rights violations – now termed “the neglected genocide” – can no longer be ignored.
This is not just an issue for Melanesia. We don’t believe any more this is just an issue for the Pacific. We do believe that this is a United Nations issue.”
Duituturaga said that civil society representatives will raise the West Papua issue with leaders at a breakfast meeting on Thursday, calling for ongoing dialogue with the Indonesian government but also discussion of the issue with the UN Secretary General at the next formal UN-Forum dialogue.
The NGO representatives, including youth and disability activists, also hope to discuss other community concerns, including disability and gender rights, access to communications technology, and using sport as a tool for peace and development.
With climate change another priority, NGOs will press for action against the environmental threat of coal mining in Australia and deep sea mining across the region.
Business representatives will also meet with Forum leaders to call for action to harmonise regional rules and regulation and extend business mobility across island states.
A number of recent international agreements have set the framework for Forum action in coming months, including the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the creation of the Green Climate Fund (the new global climate finance mechanism).
Leaders will discuss practical implementation of these global treaties, such as a proposed meeting of the GCF Board in Samoa later this year, to improve access to funding for adaptation to climate change.
At regional level, other long-running processes are also coming to a head – on trade, security and decolonisation.
The 2003 intervention under the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is winding down.
Speaking before the Forum, RAMSI Special Co-ordinator Quinton Devlin reaffirmed that the remaining 100 regional police officers would be withdrawn from Solomon Islands by 30 June 2017.
Devlin said that the Royal Solomon Island Police were well capable of maintaining security and “staying too long poses as many risks as leaving too early.”
At their recent summit, Forum Foreign Ministers described RAMSI as “a shining example of Pacific diplomacy and co-operation.”
There is less regional unity over trade policy and the PACER-Plus trade agreement.
The long-running negotiations for PACER-Plus are coming to a head, with Forum trade negotiators finalising the legal text of the document and working to finalise lists of goods and services to be covered by the treaty.
Despite the push to wrap up the agreement this year, community groups are critical of the lack of systematic social impact studies, and trade unions are angry that they were excluded from a preparatory meeting for the new Pacific Labour Mobility Annual Meeting (an initiative proposed by New Zealand as an alternative to island proposals for binding quotas for labour market access to Australia and New Zealand).
Under PNG Trade minister Richard Maru, Papua New Guinea has stepped back from the trade negotiations.
Fiji too has questions, as a late comer to the negotiations because of the post-coup isolation of the Bainimarama regime.
As with the EPA negotiations with the EU, the final attitude of the two largest island economies has the potential to downgrade the significance of a treaty that is a central pillar of Australian engagement with the region.
All this and more! Small Island States will caucus on climate and transport, while the Polynesian Leaders Group hope to enhance support for French Polynesia’s bid for full Forum membership It’s a busy week, even if the agenda has been pre-digested by the Forum Officials Committee, the Specialist Sub-Committee for Regionalism (SSCR) and the Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting!.
The Pacific members of the African Caribbean and Pacific (PACP) group will also meet, with barely suppressed anger, to discuss the collapse of negotiations with the European Union for an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
A comprehensive regional EPA was supposed to be finalised in 2007, and here we are, nearly a decade later.
Some delegates are eager to put an end to the EPA farce, just in time for island leaders to get ready for the looming renegotiation of the 2000 Cotonou Agreement with the EU!
Meanwhile, Malcolm Turnbull and his new Minister for International Development ConcettaFierravanti-Wells should face a few tough questions, over climate finance, subsidies for Australia’s coal industry and the future of Australian aid after unprecedented cuts over the last four years.
There may also be one or two remarks about the rolling collapse of Australia’s policy on the offshore processing of asylum seekers.
PNG’s Supreme Court has called for the closure of Manus, the company managing security for the camps has decided not to extend its contract, and public support is buffeted by the leak of confidential incident reports documenting extensive human rights abuses on Nauru.
The Australia Prime Minister may be well pleased to have his own plane to head home quickly, from this small and far-off corner of the Pacific.
By NIC MACLELLAN
Islands Business magazine
Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia