The five Micronesian leaders have drawn a line in the sand over their support of the nomination of Marshall Islands Ambassador Gerald Zackios to head the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
Palau and the FSM have taken the lead, saying if the Forum does not support the Micronesia area nominee, they will consider pulling out from the regional body. Other than signing the communique, the Marshall Islands has been largely mum on the nomination, which was advanced last year during the final year of President Hilda Heine’s term in office.
Three of the five presidents attended the Micronesian Presidents Summit (MPS) in person: RMI President David Kabua, Nauru President Lionel Aingimea and Palau President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. Kiribati President Taneti Maamau and FSM President David Panuelo joined the meeting virtually.
At last week’s Micronesian Presidents Summit, Remengesau continued his barrage of support for Zackios, saying in media interviews that Palau might pull out of the Forum if the Gentlemen’s Agreement giving the Micronesia region the nomination this time is not honored. The five-member MPS communique said, in part: “If this agreement is not honored, then the Presidents would see no benefit to remaining in the Pacific Islands Forum.”
President David Kabua signed the MPS communique last week along with the other Micronesia area presidents, but did not address the appointment of Zackios to the media as did both Remengesau and Panuelo.
In addition, during the Nitijela session at the end of September, when given the opportunity to address the RMI nomination by a question, Foreign Minister Casten Nemra mentioned only dates of a series of regional meetings when the appointment of the Forum Secretary General position would be discussed. He did not take the opportunity to make an endorsement of Zackios or to say that the nomination is a Forum membership-breaking issue for the RMI.
Panuelo’s office issued a media statement earlier this week about the MPS that focused on Zackios nomination, saying it is a make or break issue for the FSM.
“It would be awful if our unity doesn’t materialize into the successful bid for Gerald Zackios,” President Panuelo said at the Leaders Retreat. “Ambassador Zackios is the proper choice per our Gentleman’s Agreement for sub-regional rotation. Our solidarity and integrity in the PIF are strengthened by this agreement, and to me this issue is non-negotiable.
I don’t want this to lead to fragmentation of our PIF, but it might do that. The Micronesian subregion is as much a part of the Pacific as Polynesia or Melanesia, and if they are unable to adhere to the Pacific Way of respect for others, including respect for our Gentleman’s Agreement, then the consequence is that we simply don’t engage with them or allow ourselves to be pushed around by people with ulterior motives in the PIF Secretariat. If this agreement is not honored, I see no benefit to remaining in the PIF.”
Responding to these comments from the Micronesian leaders, Henry Puna of the Cook Islands told Radio New Zealand International there is no need to battle over the secretary general position.
Puna stepped down last month as prime minister of the Cook Islands after 10 years and is now a candidate for the secretary general position. Puna said a threat to leave the Forum made by the Micronesia area presidents was very unfortunate.
“Because talking with most of the leaders around the region, yes they acknowledge that there is a basis for pushing that (the Gentlemen’s Agreement),” he told RNZI. “But given the times that we are now in, you know with the challenges of Covid-19 and also the meltdown of the economies in the region, the feeling is that we need to have the right person to drive the region.”