In 1971, the leaders of five independent island nations established the South Pacific Forum, with support from Australia and New Zealand. They wanted to talk about political issues like nuclear testing, self-determination and inter-island trade, topics that couldn’t be debated in the South Pacific Commission because of the colonial powers that dominated the regional organisation.
Fifty years on, the SPF is the Pacific Islands Forum. The name change reflects the growing Forum membership and the expansion to include Micronesian nations from the northern Pacific, as well as two French dependencies.
That outreach is now shattered. Five Micronesian countries have announced their planned withdrawal from the Forum, after the election of Henry Puna as successor to outgoing Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor. In a close vote at a Special Leaders’ Retreat on 3 February, the former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands defeated Marshall Islands Ambassador to the United States Gerald Zackios for the post, despite united support from the Micronesian nations for the Marshallese diplomat.
The COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis has exacerbated many fault lines within Pacific nations, but have also disrupted regional unity and exposed long-simmering resentments. The Forum drama comes at a time there’s a desperate need for collective action on climate change, economic recovery and the roll-out of life-saving vaccines.
In April last year, as the pandemic started to bite, outgoing Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor gave an interview to Islands Business. She highlighted the need for Presidents and Prime Ministers to work collectively across the region, despite the priority each leader must give to their own citizens: “Everybody’s gone into an isolationist position because you’ve got to look after yourself first. Thinking of how we can all work together is not your natural instinct. But the Secretary General of the United Nations has really been driving this home: you have to work with the collective. That’s the job all Secretary Generals have – and the job I have.”