The future of the oceans is high on the agenda as the Republic of Palau prepares for Tuesday’s opening of the Pacific Islands Forum.
As leaders gather in Koror for the 45th Forum meeting, there will be a series of side meetings discussing the sustainable management, conservation and exploitation of ocean resources. Pacific governments are preparing to intervene in global debates on sustainable development, and this year’s theme is “The Ocean: Life and Future.”
With New Zealand Prime Minister John Key preparing for elections and Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia missing his first Forum to cope with fallout from the Malaysian airlines disaster, the prime ministers of Vanuatu and the Cook Islands will also be absent from this week’s gathering.
The absence of leaders might suggest that this annual meeting is losing its cachet. For Forum Secretary General Tuiloma Neroni Slade, however, decisions taken at the Palau gathering will have “far reaching consequences.”
“It’s a meeting that occurs at an important moment in the history of the development of member countries,” he said. “We are attracting very high level personalities from our development partners, and this of course is an event that the region is taking very seriously.”
The agenda in Palau includes a number of crucial decisions which will determine the future of the region’s key intergovernmental agency.
This week, Forum leaders must choose a new Secretary General to head the Forum Secretariat, agree on the extent of engagement with the Bainimarama regime as Fiji moves towards elections next September; and finalise policies on environment and development to carry into crucial international summits over the next 18 months.
Improving Forum governance
The meeting comes as the Forum Secretariat is under pressure from all directions, facing a diverse mix of development partners, burgeoning sub-regional organisations, civil society critiques, and concern from some member governments that crucial resources are not flowing to the national level.
With an increasingly complex regional and international agenda, the Suva-based secretariat must manage relationships with other regional intergovernmental agencies in the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP). In Palau, regional leaders will endorse a new Framework for Pacific Regionalism, which was outlined at a special leaders’ retreat in May and circulated to Pacific governments, business and civil society for discussion.
The new framework replaces the Pacific Plan for Strengthening Regional Cooperation and Integration, following the 2012 Winder review of the Forum Secretariat (which was critical of the priorities and capacities of the regional organisation), and the 2013 review of the Pacific Plan led by former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta.
Morauta’s team began looking at the priorities outlined in the 2005 Pacific Plan. They soon broadened to a much wider debate about the future of regionalism, highlighting uncertainty about the role and mandate of the regional institutions.
Addressing Forum leaders last year in Majuro, Morauta stated: “There is a compelling argument for greater regional cooperation and integration across the Pacific. . . . However, progress in regionalism has in our opinion slowed down, and by too much.”
Describing a region “at the crossroads,” Morauta was sharply critical of the Pacific Plan: “Confidence in the Pacific Plan and some of the institutions around it has fallen to the point where some observers question their survival.”
The Pacific Plan had become a long shopping list of priorities for the CROP agencies, and the new regional framework is designed to encourage more focused cooperation to support regional integration.
Despite the new framework, however, the Forum still faces challenges to maintain its position as the premier intergovernmental agency in the region. Some member governments are uncertain about the potential loss of sovereignty that will come with increased political integration, while the forum of independent nations must decide whether to open its doors by granting full membership to non-self-governing territories like New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
Sub-regional organisations like the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) are also addressing complex issues that the Forum has been reluctant to touch for many years, such as the MSG’s recent debates on membership for the West Papuan nationalist movement (a debate avoided on the Forum agenda because of sensitivities in Canberra, Port Moresby and Jakarta).
Above all, the region is still monitoring Fiji’s transition to parliamentary rule, with elections to be held in September. While Fiji has retained its Forum membership since the 2006 coup, the Bainimarama government has been suspended from Forum meetings and activities – and the Fiji Prime Minister has suggested he is in no rush to rejoin an organisation perceived as dominated by Canberra and Wellington.
Speaking to journalists before the Forum, Secretary General Neroni Slade noted: “I think the suspension of Fiji has been a traumatic experience for member countries and for Fiji itself. It’s never happened before and I hope it never happens again.”
Since the Forum’s ministerial mission earlier this year, member countries are eager for Fiji to be reintegrated into Forum meetings, with Australia and New Zealand now more open to economic and military engagement. But Fiji’s suspension has opened the way for new international relations and South-South cooperation, with the Bainimarama government chairing the G 77+ China group throughout 2013. Suva has also established the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) as a new venue for governments, business and Pacific civil society to discuss alternative visions of development.
“Fiji will be high on the leaders’ agenda,” Slade noted, though the crucial decision on ending the suspension will only be taken after Fiji’s elections. “Last year Forum leaders decided to revisit the situation after free and fair elections in September. The desired outcome would be the lifting of the suspension of Fiji’s participation in Forum meetings and other activities and for full engagement and normalisation of the situation.”
After weathering a “fascinating but challenging” period, Neroni Slade will complete his second term as Secretary General in October. This week in Palau, Forum leaders must decide on his replacement.
There are a number of declared candidates, but no clear frontrunner. Three leading Melanesian figures have been nominated by their countries: former foreign minister and ambassador Kaliopate Tavola of Fiji; former ambassador Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea; and Doctor Jimmie Rodgers, recently retired as director-general of the Secretariat the Pacific Community (SPC). The other formally nominated contender is Fabian Nimea of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
The decision is complicated by the candidacy of Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands, endorsed by three Micronesian chief executives after the formal 31 May deadline for nomination. De Brum serves as Minister assisting the President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the outgoing Forum chair Christopher Loeak.
The crucial decision on leadership comes as the Forum has expanded relations with a wider range of players across the region. Neroni Slade says: “I think increasingly the world community is engaged in very, very interesting ways. I think countries out there are very interested in investing in our region, in partnering Pacific communities and Pacific countries because we’re producing some good results.”
In recent years, the Forum has hosted high profile dignitaries such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This year’s star turn is Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Two European countries, Turkey and Spain, are seeking the status of Post Forum Dialogue Partner, aiming to join 15 other countries that will hold discussions with Forum leaders next Friday. Spain applied last year but its application was deferred - a diplomatic signal to highlight regional anger over illegal fishing by Spanish vessels at a time that island nations are seeking to regulate their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).
Managing ocean resources
The invasion of EU fishing vessels into the region is just one of the many oceanic challenges facing Pacific governments, which must deal with a range of economic and environmental impacts on the world’s largest ocean.
This week, Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. will highlight the host country’s initiatives on ocean management, including the creation of a shark sanctuary and a new proposal to ban commercial fishing in 80 percent of the country’s exclusive economic zone.
The Palau meeting will also issue a Leaders’ Declaration on Oceans in the lead up to a series of global summits that will redefine policies on environment, development and climate change.
Decisions from the Palau Forum will be carried into next September’s global meeting of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in Samoa, the third in a series of summits that began in Barbados in 1994.
The SIDS conference also provides a springboard to highlight island concerns on climate change in the lead up to November’s UN climate negotiations in Peru and the December 2015 conference in Paris to finalise a global climate treaty.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have framed international development policy since 2000, and Forum leaders will receive reports on progress made by Pacific island countries in achieving the MDG targets and the effectiveness of development cooperation.
Beyond this, Pacific governments are seeking to advance their perspectives as the United Nations seeks to set new global targets for sustainable development and recast donor priorities. Next year the MDGs will be transformed into Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), and Small Island Developing States are lobbying for the inclusion of a new goal on the oceans.
Neroni Slade says: “Our central concern is to safeguard the health of what is our home environment. I think people are realising that we have an interest in safeguarding the health of the ocean and the resources of the ocean. This is our principal argument – to treat the ocean as a central stand-alone development goal. “