Jun 07, 2020 Last Updated 3:16 AM, Jun 7, 2020

Pathway across the Pacific

  • Jun 07, 2020
  • Published in April

For only the third time in the last 20 years, the Pacific Islands Forum has invoked the Biketawa Declaration to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic. Forum member governments have agreed to establish a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway, to co-ordinate the regional medical response to the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Prime Minister of Tuvalu Kausea Natano, chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health emergency of unprecedented scale. It poses a real and extreme danger to the health and security of Pacific peoples. Never before has the formal Forum membership simultaneously been in crisis.”

In a video hook-up on 7 April, Forum foreign ministers and officials responded to a call from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and agreed to establish a “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19.” Regional agencies want donors to use the humanitarian pathway to assist island governments with medical supplies and equipment as they respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This co-ordinated response will be overseen by a Ministerial Action Group (MAG), involving Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Nauru, Vanuatu, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. The MAG will be supported by a regional task force to ensure that medical supplies, technical assistance and essential equipment can be moved seamlessly through the region. This is especially important for some smaller island states that must tranship goods through regional transport hubs like Guam, Nadi or Brisbane. The humanitarian pathway aims to expedite customs clearance of medical supplies and fast-track diplomatic approval for chartered flights and commercial shipping.

This new pathway will complement existing regional meetings, as finance and trade ministers prepare to address the economic woes looming on the horizon. These include the loss of remittances, tourism and export opportunities; increased debt burden; and the double whammy of loss and damage from climate change and Cyclone Harold, which hit Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in April.

Read more in the April issue of Islands Business.

Pacific Islands Forum members have heard nationals stranded in other member countries will be ‘treated fairly’  during their virtual meeting on a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway for COVID-19 this week.

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe chaired the meeting and says the fate of nationals stuck in other countries was a major concern: “there was an assurance from the members that any national from another country in their country at this point in time would be treated fairly and would have equal access to services. So that I think was very reassuring to us to hear that, coming from our members.”

“We hope that that’s the way we respond to this crisis,” Kofe continued. “That we do it the Pacific way. That we look after each other. Because I know there is a tendency that when we face crisis of this nature, that we tend to look inwardly and to drive our own national interest, but I think it's important to work tougher the Pacific way to resolve issues like this.”

As an example, Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor says Nauru is working to get home not only its own people, but some of its neighbours.

“The government of Nauru has made provision for aircraft to pick up citizens of Nauru and Marshall Islands and other northern Pacific member states, particularly from here in Fiji where we had students. And we’ve been able to assist where we can to get discussions to get clearances so this can happen.

Air Nauru has also flown home its athletes and other nationals, including a Tuvaluan, from New Caledonia.

Repatriation will be an ongoing effort as part of the work of the humanitarian pathway. Overnight PNG’s police minister said 306 Papua New Guineans had registered their interest in returning home. 116 of them are in Australia, four in Fiji, one in Solomon Islands, four in New Caledonia and one in Vanuatu, all Pacific Island Forum members.

The Pacific Humanitarian Pathway is prioritising the movement of medical supplies and expertise.

Pacific Island Forum Leaders will establish a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 which could see the expediting of medical assistance and customs clearance of medical supplies, and facilitating of diplomatic clearances for chartered flights and commercial shipping.

Forum Foreign Ministers met virtually yesterday and established a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 to allow for faster and easier assistance and cooperation between member countries in response to the pandemic.

 “The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health emergency of unprecedented scale. It poses a real and extreme danger to the health and security of the Pacific peoples. Never before has the full Forum Membership simultaneously been in crisis,” said the Tuvalu Prime Minister and Pacific Islands Forum Chair, Kausea Natano.

The Chair of yesterday’s meeting, Simon Kofe of Tuvalu, said that responding to COVID-19 as a region reflected the Tuvaluan concept of te fale-pili, which literally means houses in close proximity to one another, and which implies a moral responsibility to protect neighbours.

Forum members to already report diagnosed cases of COVID-19 are: Australia, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Reflecting the growing concern over the Coronavirus pandemic, the Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum  and Tuvalu Prime Minister, Kausea Natano, invoked a few days ago the Biketawa Declaration, a security arrangement enabling members to meet on security matters.  An urgent virtual meeting of Forum Foreign Ministers will be held this coming Tuesday, April 7,  to discuss a regional response to the situation.  This is a welcome development, enabling a regional discussion of collective concerns, needs, and potential responses, including exploration of a coordinated way forward working with development partners.  It will be likely Ministers will be focused on a broad range of priority matters.  But one, if not already on the agenda, will certainly be worthy of some attention: the creation of a humanitarian corridor or pipeline for nations in the Pacific.

Discussion of this corridor is an important issue given the unique characteristics of Pacific nations and current conditions involving a major disruption of transportation networks and limited fallback options over a huge geographical expanse.  At the best of times, logistical air and sealift is a challenge in the Pacific.  In current trying circumstances, these challenges will loom ever larger.

Currently, the majority of nations in the Pacific are under some form of emergency lockdown and self-imposed isolation.  Enacted with little forewarning and preparation, there was often little opportunity to stockpile essential supplies, equipment and other requirements.  Now isolated from the rest of the world, these nations will have to rely on a limited stock of resources.  While mitigation measures now in place will hopefully avert a deterioration in conditions and facilitate a speedy return to normalcy, there is a need to be prepared for any eventuality.  In the event of a deterioration, we may expect a prolongation of the period in lockdown and isolation.  The limited resources available in many nations will need urgent replenishment, while desperate life-saving evacuations and the provision of critical medical supplies and equipment may be needed to address an escalating crisis.  Given the geographical distances involved in the Pacific, a timely response may not be forthcoming.

Compounding matters, there will be questions about how such lift may be generated, as nearly all commercial transportation networks will have been suspended.  In all likelihood, it will be the militaries of development partners that will be called upon to assist.  Coordination for this will be assisted by some prior discussion and agreement between nations and development partners.  An agreed outline of a pre-approved humanitarian corridor, for example, may help ease a smoother and more efficient deployment of lift capabilities delivering assistance.  These prior coordinating arrangements are all the more important in a context where extreme caution has to be maintained over the arrival and clearance of aircraft, ships and their cargoes.  Risks of any further transmission must be managed and minimized in any emergency assistance mission.

Beyond current emergency conditions, we should also keep in mind the medium and longer term needs of Pacific nations as they emerge out of the pandemic and embark upon recovery programs and a return to normalcy.  What might be the needs of these nations in that longer journey, and what lift requirements may be involved?  Considering that much of the rest of the world will be going through similar transitions, can we count on a speedy resumption of transportation connections in the Pacific to expeditiously facilitate such needs?  Or, as is more likely to be the case, will there remain significant gaps and deficiencies, requiring supplementary capabilities in the shape of development partner militaries?  Yet again, in this circumstance, some modality such as a pre-agreed humanitarian corridor may serve a helpful purpose in this medium term setting.

The present pandemic is unprecedented in many different ways.  In past disasters in the Pacific, affected nations could almost always count on the assistance of development partners.  Now, despite comforting reassurances, the prospect of an uncertain response, needs to be seriously contemplated.  These development partners themselves are gripped by the same pandemic, and grappling with its many serious consequences, and their own emergency lockdowns and isolation measures.  With capacities stretched just meeting national needs and priorities, it will be challenging balancing these against an enduring commitment to regionalism and regional assistance.  Successfully managing such a dilemma implies an ever greater need to be anticipatory in identifying needs and coordinating among diverse partners a sharing of roles and capabilities – in advance – that might be brought to bear at the right time and place.  In light the vast distances in the Pacific, and the limited reach of sea and airlift capabilities of traditional partners such as Australia, France and New Zealand combined, a proactive coordinated approach anchored around a humanitarian corridor construct, may be sensible.  Indeed, the expansion of the dialogue around this issue to include additional partners in geographical proximity with significant lift capabilities, such as the United States and Japan, should be a priority.

Dr. Alfred Oehlers is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii

*The views in this article are the personal opinions of the author and are not representative of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu

In a marathon leaders’ retreat that continued well into the night, with often heated debate, the Pacific Islands Forum has issued a joint communique and a new declaration on climate change.

Throughout this week in Tuvalu, the Australian delegation has defended a series of negotiating red lines against strong pressure from island leaders, seeling more urgent responses to the climate crisis from the largest Forum member.

During the final development of the Forum’s annual agenda, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke and Australian officials insisted on the removal of references to coal, establishing a target below 1.5 degrees Celsius for global warming, and being required to announce next year a strategy for zero emissions by 2050.

Islands Business asked Prime Minister Morrison if the pleas of island leaders had persuaded him to change his government’s policy, refusing to make further financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund. He replied: “No, it hasn’t, because I just want to invest directly in helping the Pacific family here. I don’t need to send a cheque via Geneva or New York or wherever it has to go.” The GCF Secretariat is actually in Incheon, South Korea, which he should know, given Australia was previously co-chair of the global climate fund.

Tense arguments in the retreat

In the end, however, all Forum members agreed to the “Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now - Securing the Future of our Blue Pacific.”

Forum host Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu and Prime Minister Morrison presented a united front at the post-conference press conference (delayed until Friday morning after leaders debated long into the night). But this diplomatic façade could not belie the damage done to Australia’s reputation and Morrison’s relationship with some leaders.

Sopoaga acknowledged that there were heated moments during the leaders retreat: "We expressed very strongly during our exchange, between me and Scott. I said: ‘You are concerned about saving your economies, your situation in Australia, I’m concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu and likewise other leaders of small island countries.’”

“That was the tone of the discussion. Please don’t expect that he comes and we bow down or that.

“We were exchanging flaring language, not swearing, but of course you know, expressing the concerns of leaders and I was very happy with the exchange of ideas, it was frank. Prime Minister Morrison, of course, stated his position and I stated my position and other leaders: we need to save these people.”

There were two occasions where the meeting almost broke down without agreement, but after a 12-hour marathon, a final compromise on wording was achieved. Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has used his Twitter account to express concern about the final compromises by some fellow Forum Island Countries, tweeting: “Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.”

After the meeting, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said: “Everyone had to shift their positions. It was very fierce and very frank, and some people just didn’t want to move. But in the end, everyone had to move a bit.”

Regenvanu told Islands Business that overall Vanuatu was happy with the final Kainaki II climate declaration, which will be presented to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in September. Leaders will call on Secretary General Antonio Guterres to urgently appoint a Special Adviser on climate change and security.

“I think the wording is strong,” Regenvanu said. “There’s reference to 1.5 degrees throughout, there’s reference to the IPCC report throughout, there’s references to achieving net zero emissions, eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and a just transition away from fossil fuels. Most of the key language we want to be included that has not been included in the past is there.”

Leaders noted (but did not endorse) the proposal for a United Nations General Assembly Resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change.

Climate demands

Despite the deletion of most references to coal and wordsmithing to give flexibility to all parties, the language of the declaration may cause some grief at home for Scott Morrison. His conservative Liberal/National Coalition government contains many people who are resistant to the Pacific’s ongoing call for urgent action on climate, including the closure of coal mines and reduction of fossil fuel exports.

In the face of ongoing climate denial in Australia amongst conservative members of the government, the Kainaki II declaration states: “The science is non-negotiable. Urgent action by the international community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is critical to keep us on the 1.5°C pathway.

“Right now, climate change and disasters are impacting all our countries. Our seas are rising, oceans are warming, and extreme events such as cyclones and typhoons, flooding, drought and king tides are frequently more intense, inflicting damage and destruction to our communities and ecosystems and putting the health of our peoples at risk. All around the world, people affected by disaster and climate change-induced displacement are losing their homes and livelihoods, particularly the most vulnerable atoll nations.”

Forum leaders welcomed the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stating that it “remains the authoritative scientific body on climate change and is regarded as providing governments the best available science on climate change. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C indicates that in model pathways with no or limited overshoots of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, global net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.”

Important provisions of the declaration call on “all parties to the Paris Agreement to

meet or exceed their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in order to pursue global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this is critical to the security of our Blue Pacific.”

They called on G20 countries to formulate and communicate mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020; rapidly implement their commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies; and accelerate support for the work of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.

New vision for Forum

Key decisions from the final communiqué include plans for the development of a vision statement on Pacific regionalism for coming decades, and a range of initiatives on Forum governance.

Leaders endorsed the development of the “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which must ensure social, cultural, environmental and economic integrity, sovereignty and security in order to protect people, place and prospects of the Blue Pacific”.

The Forum Secretariat is tasked to prepare a draft strategy for leaders’ consideration at next year’s Forum in Vanuatu. However, at their July meeting, Foreign Ministers stressed that there needed to be a mid-term target of 2030, with clear objectives set out over the next decade in line with the period of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Leaders endorsed the concept for the establishment of the regionally owned and led Pacific Resilience Facility, although there were some reservations from Fiji. Samoa has offered to host the new funding facility for resilience initiatives by island government and communities.

There were a range of decisions on oceans and fisheries policy, including moves towards a regular Regional Fisheries Ministers Meeting. Leaders reaffirmed their commitment to conclude negotiations on all outstanding maritime boundaries claims and zones, although there are many ongoing disputes between member states over conflicting claims.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Sopoaga confirmed: “We spoke very strongly against the leakage of nuclear waste into the Pacific and about the need to address them as urgently as possible.”

Leaders expressed concern “for the significance of the potential threat of nuclear contamination, World War II wrecks and unexploded ordnances to the health and security of the Blue Pacific her people and prospects, acknowledged the importance of addressing the long-standing issues of nuclear testing legacy in the Pacific and called for the operationalisation of the provisions of the Rarotonga Treaty, as necessary.”

To support Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, who has pushed the issue of nuclear and toxic contaminants throughout her term, the Forum agreed to commission “a comprehensive, independent and objective scientific assessment of the contamination issue in the Pacific, including in the nuclear test site at Runit Island in the Marshall Islands”.

Leaders agreed to request a meeting with US President Donald Trump to discuss the current and emerging issues of the nuclear testing legacy in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and in the Blue Pacific.

The Forum endorsed an Action Plan to implement the Boe Declaration adopted at the 2018 Forum meeting in Nauru, and agreed to set up a Sub-Committee of the Forum Officials’ Committee on Regional Security.

Reflecting the multiple, conflicting positions on climate change during the week, and the demands of Smaller Island States (SIS), leaders “endorsed with qualification, the Summary of Decisions of the 28th Smaller Island States Leaders Meeting and directed the Secretariat to institute a process for tabling the SIS Leaders’ decisions at Leaders Meetings.”

For a full wrap up of the 50th Pacific Islands Forum, subscribe now for the next edition of Islands Business magazine 

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