‘We’re out!’

The February 3 virtual meeting of all heads of state in the Pacific Islands Forum that voted 9-8 to elect former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna the new secretary general of the Forum.

Following the hotly contested Pacific Islands Forum election for a new Secretary General last week — in which Micronesia’s candidate Ambassador Gerald Zackios lost — the Marshall Islands and its four neighboring nations have thumbed their collective noses at the Forum, saying they are all pulling out of the premier regional body.

The move, approved Monday by the five presidents, delivers on a promise made by then-Palau President Tommy Remenegsau, Jr. late last year that if the Forum did not recognize that it was Micronesia’s turn to hold the Secretary General post, Palau would pull out.

“The Micronesian Presidents jointly agreed that all five nations will initiative the formal process of withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum,” said a statement issued from a virtual meeting held Monday this week involving President David Kabua, Nauru President Lionel Aingimea, FSM President David Panuelo, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau, and Palau President Surangel Whipps, Jr.

But Monday’s decision was predictable following President Whipps’ declaration last Friday that Palau was exiting the Forum and initiating closure of its embassy in Suva.

In Majuro, the response to the pullout was somewhat ho-hum, an indication that the Forum is not viewed as a key organization in day-to-day work in the RMI. Among comments from government officials in Majuro:

• “Nowadays the CROP (Forum) agencies are usually in competition with us for funds. That’s one of the reasons I don’t see the need to be a member.”

• “Travel aside, will there be any impact?”

• “We’re not burning the bridge, we’re paving the way for a better Pacific Islands Forum. Sub-regional arrangements work and can support regional efforts.”

Key questions raised in the wake of the decision of the Micronesia area leaders include:

• How will it impact the membership of RMI, Kiribati and Nauru in USP?

• Will it have any effect on the heavy engagement of all five members with the Forum Fisheries Agency?

• Will the Marshalls exit be an issue for ongoing employment of current Deputy Secretary General Filimon Manoni, a Marshallese citizen?

• Will the RMI follow Palau’s lead and also close its Suva embassy?
“Let’s be very clear that our withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum is on principle and not emotions,” said President Kabua in a statement. “We need to understand what do we mean by ‘Pacific Way’ and ‘regionalism.’”

Meantime, this development has sparked widespread comment and news reporting, with comments mostly on the negative side about Micronesia’s move breaking up unity that the Pacific needs for addressing climate, Covid and other issues.

The head of the Pacific Community (SPC), however, offered a thoughtful assessment of why Micronesia’s move should be seen as a catalyst for needed reform at the Forum.

Dr. Colin Tukuitonga said the friction at the Forum was a reflection of an erosion of trust and respect between Micronesia in the North and the countries in the South, reported Radio New Zealand International.

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 (role) of the regional body,” he said. “So you only escalate to the regional body big issues that require international attention like climate change. But the influence, decision-making and all of that happens at the sub-regional level.”

He mentioned the existing sub-regional groupings including the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Polynesian Leaders Group.

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