Around the region, Pacific governments are introducing border controls and health regulations to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. But regional organisations are also responding: a virtual meeting of Foreign Ministers has established a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway (PHP) to increase medical support to Forum island nations.
Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, spoke to Islands Business about the regional response to the coronavirus pandemic. Excerpts from the interview:
Dame Meg Taylor: We’re focussing very much on the health aspect and there’s a lot of bilateral negotiations going on with donors. But the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway (PHP) is a regional response, driven by the countries to say ‘This is the way we want it done.’
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. I’m really pleased that Pacific leaders have seen the merit of doing this.
IB:Did the Foreign Ministers Meeting discuss the economic as well as health effects of the pandemic?
Dame Meg: We’ve been instructed by the leaders to keep this focussed on health at the moment, but questions were asked around trade and economic issues. The Forum has already started work on that. Other institutions like the ADB and World Bank have done their work, while UNDP is looking at broader social impact issues. Fiji would like to see a virtual trade ministers meeting, but this will happen under the Forum rather than the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway. Our PHP focus is to get medical assistance to the countries and we will do that.
The big concern on the economic front is what sort of debt we incur, and how that will impact countries and the delivery of services in the longer term.
There’s an understanding in the region that the impact of this virus and global economic impacts will filter down to the Pacific. However, the feeling amongst leaders in the Pacific is that we’re going to take control in our countries and our region. If we don’t, we’re going to be left at the whim and interests of others. For the leaders, as well as looking at domestic issues, they’re also looking at how the geo-politics will play out.
IB:Is the response complicated by international geo-politics?
I’ve seen media reports in Australia with people worried, saying: “China is coming in and giving you people all this aid.” But China already has strong diplomatic relations in the region. Taiwan has relationships with some of our member states. China was quick off the mark – they’ve moved lots of supplies into the region. The Jack Ma Foundation is sending a shipment and they’ve designated that they want it to go to countries that have already been impacted, so we’ve said we’d get it to the countries through SPC and WHO.
Other countries are also helping. Australia and New Zealand are helping. [Australian Prime Minister] Scott Morrison has always raised the Pacific in his public statements, but Australia is launching its own Pacific corridor. We’ve had discussions that whatever they do and we do, we have to find complementarity.
I think our island countries want to help themselves. It’s like the climate issue – the voice of the Pacific needs to be heard.
The countries are saying that they want donors working closely with them, as they may be concerned that money coming in to the region is going to be captured by a third party.
If you don’t have co-ordination, you’re going to get every donor ringing every government saying ‘we can put together a charter for you.’ Countries are saying, if you want to bring in an aircraft, you have to abide by our protocols.
It’s not about sending people in to the countries to help – that what our countries are most fearful of. It’s a challenge for organisations like the WHO. Their personnel will have to quarantine before they travel. It’s very clear – island leaders are very concerned about any outside people coming in to their country at all.
IB: Is there a danger that the Covid-19 crisis will draw away international attention from other core key regional concerns?
Dame Meg: I think that is a concern and particularly on the climate issue. The greatest security threat now and into the future – with or without coronavirus – is the climate issue. Maybe Cyclone Harold is a reminder that climate change is always a vulnerability around the corner for us. Always. Coronavirus is the focus now, because if it spreads through the islands it could decimate our populations. Many countries have a strong memory of what happened with pandemics in times past, and that’s why they’ve sealed down their borders completely.
With the recession in major countries, you can see changes in the environment. There’s a reprieve for a short time. The fear is that China might triple its coal production to get back into business again.
IB: The islands with the highest confirmed rates of infections are often the US and French territories like Guam, New Caledonia and French Polynesia…
Dame Meg: Yes, the territories that are linked to metropolitan states were the ones that were impacted first – the numbers in French Polynesia are of concern.
IB:Will the scheduled Forum leaders meeting in Vanuatu proceed?
We haven’t made a decision, though we had discussions prior to the elections in Vanuatu. We’re waiting for the new government of Vanuatu before we can take this forward. The people of Vanuatu will be concerned about outsiders coming in. When we would have those meetings is still to be decided. It may only be a meeting of the leaders - the question is whether it will be face to face or whether it will be virtual. It’s all going to depend on what happens with the health and security of all our countries.
IB:How will this pandemic affect the regional debate about security into the future?
Dame Meg: There’s the health issue now, but some countries are already talking about the next phase of how we’re going to get through this. We’ve invoked the Biketawa Declaration, but the Boe Declaration underpins the next phase of the recovery. After health, there’s going to be recovery around food security, environmental security. The bigger countries have got problems, the smaller countries are extremely vulnerable. How the countries respond to this is going to be a sign of Pacific resilience.
IB:In many countries, are you seeing positive examples of communities preparing and mobilising?
Dame Meg: I think in the bigger islands, one of the good things is that everybody is planting and going back to our natural resources to feed ourselves. My own family and community in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea are getting their gardens going, so if there’s a long period of isolation, they will survive.
I think the hardest hit of our Pacific family will be the smaller island states and particularly our atoll states. We have to ensure that greater assistance goes to them in the longer term.
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.
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.
By Nic Maclellan (Islands Business magazine) in Funafuti, Tuvalu
Under “the New Pacific Diplomacy”, Pacific island governments are looking to international arenas to advance their regional agenda. Following successful diplomacy in global climate negotiations, Pacific diplomats are more active in multilateral debates about funding for development, ocean governance, climate finance and reform of public institutions, including United Nations agencies.
Pacific ambassadors at the United Nations (UN) in New York work together as the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) group, to advance their agenda without relying on traditional partners Australia and New Zealand. Within the UN system, Australia and New Zealand are members of the Western European and Other Group (WEOG), while the PSIDS have merged with the Asia Group. This membership of the large Asian bloc has been complemented by Fiji’s decision to join Vanuatu as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). These links mean island nations have achieved greater success in the G77+China, as well as a range of United Nations institutions.
Speaking at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2018, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine noted: “Small nations can have a unique role within the multilateral system. We would not have the UN Law of the Sea, or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and a great many other outcomes – but for the political will of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). We are a quarter of this body's membership.”
Closer ties with the United Nations
Over the last two years, the Pacific Islands Forum has sought to advance the region’s “Blue Pacific” agenda on climate, oceans and resource management, to ensure that the specific needs of SIDS are taken into account. The host of this week’s Forum leaders’ meeting, Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, argues: “We believe that all UN agencies should identity and develop special programs for SIDS.”
Outgoing Forum chair, President Baron Waqa of Nauru, has highlighted the difficulties for SIDS within the UN system. He told the 2018 session of the UNGA: “For the smallest countries – the micro-states – conventional pathways to development are not available to us. We simply cannot offer the profit potential that private investors are seeking. Therefore, we must look to public institutions – to the United Nations – to create an environment in which the rest of us can grow and prosper.”
Since his appointment in January 2017, UN Secretary General António Guterres has announced an ambitious program of reform of the UN development system. This review is an opportunity seized by SIDS, which are often disadvantaged by the UN’s notoriously bureaucratic and top-heavy structure. In recent years, Forum island leaders have been boosting their engagement with the UN Secretary-General. Last September, they met Guterres at UN Headquarters in New York, taking their wish list directly to the top.
Recognising the importance of climate action for island nations, Guterres said he intended to visit the Pacific region in 2019 as part of his global advocacy on climate change. He made good that pledge in May this year, with a visit to Fiji, New Zealand, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
Speaking this week in Tuvalu, Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, said: “The UN Secretary General’s visit was a tremendous boost to the region. We were very happy that we were able to host him. He was in good listening mode, but also his positions that are important to the region around climate change helped to energise not just the leadership of the region, but the people of the region.”
This sentiment was echoed by Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, following Guterres’ visit to the small atoll nation.
“Man, I was so impressed and so thankful,” Sopoaga said. “He came as he promised to us in New York in September last year – so he kept to his promise. To have such a very senior official of the United Nations to come all the way – visited Fiji, visited Tuvalu and Vanuatu – I think it’s a real plus.”
At a May 2019 summit in Fiji, Guterres highlighted two fundamental challenges for the Pacific region: “First, the increasingly severe impacts of climate change, and second, the deepening threats to the world’s oceans and seas. I am here to see the region’s climate pressures firsthand, and to learn about the work being undertaken by communities here in Fiji and elsewhere to bolster resilience.”
The UN Secretary General called for “an end to subsidies for fossil fuels and shift towards renewable energy, electric vehicles and climate-smart practices. Our efforts should also include carbon pricing that reflects the true cost of emissions, and accelerating the closure of coal plants, halting plans for new ones, and replacing those jobs with healthier alternatives so that the transformation is just, inclusive and profitable.”
Music to the ears of Forum island countries, but not the largest Forum member, Australia. Since its election in 2013, the conservative Coalition government in Australia has abolished the carbon pricing mechanism created by the previous Labor government, maintained extensive fossil fuel subsidies, and facilitated new coal mining in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Key ministers support the opening of new coal-fired power stations in the north of the country.
Following the summit, Pacific leaders issued the “Blue Pacific’s Call for Urgent Global Climate Change Action”, stressing the importance of action at this September’s UN climate summit in New York: “At the Climate Action Summit, platitudes and repackaged commitments cannot be the substance of our deliberations. We need transformational change at scale, and courageous leaders prepared to deliver on it. …All countries, with no caveats, must agree to take decisive and transformative action to reduce global emissions, and ensure at scale mitigation and adaption support for those countries that need it. If we do not, we will lose. We will lose our homes, our ways of life, our well-being and our livelihoods. We know this because we are experiencing loss already.”
At the Suva summit in May, Guterres also noted the success of Pacific diplomacy in creating a specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on the oceans and seas: “Your leadership was critical in ensuring the adoption of SDG 14 to conserve and sustainable use the oceans, seas and marine life for sustainable development.”
After the adoption of SDG14, Fiji and Sweden co-hosted the successful 2017 UN Ocean Conference. Guterres appointed Fiji’s former UN Ambassador Peter Thomson as his Special Envoy for the Ocean – giving a crucial opportunity for Pacific SIDS to advance their Blue Pacific agenda.
Pacific governments are also looking forward to next month’s high-level review of the progress of the SAMOA Pathway, the ambitious development agenda adopted at the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States, held in 2014 in Samoa.
Pushing for UN reform
Given their limited diplomatic representation around the world, Forum leaders have proposed changes to the UN Security Council agenda, improved UN representation in the Pacific and better liaison with the UN agencies based in Geneva.
Pacific governments have long argued that the UN Security Council (UNSC) needs reform, to focus attention on non-traditional security priorities. In line with the Boe Declaration, issued at last year’s Forum, island leaders have called on the UN Secretary General to appoint a Special Adviser on Climate Change and Security, to strengthen the global focus on climate change as a security risk.
However, bureaucracy moves slowly on the global scale. A key concern is how the UN Secretariat can expand resources for the SIDS unit in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Solomon Islands has also argued that SIDS must have a direct voice on the UNSC, through a dedicated seat in the non-permanent rotation.
As part of the UN review, the New York Secretariat has studied the role of multi-county offices. With UN’s multi-country representation in Suva, Apia and Port Moresby, there is no full-time resident representative in many smaller island states, particularly in the northern Pacific. Pacific leaders called for a strengthened role of UN Country Teams and improvements to Resident Coordinator system, along with setting up UN permanent offices across the region.
Last year, RMI President Hilda Heine told the UNGA: “Our present UN Resident Coordinator is not a resident at all, and faces an impossible task to effectively serve ten remote nations at once.”
As a sign of possible change, Levan Bouadze from Georgia has just taken up the position as new Resident Representative of the ‘next generation’ UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, following a separation between the UN Resident Coordinator’s office.
Pacific governments are also moving to strengthen their representation with UN agencies in Geneva, with Mere Falemaka, the PIF Permanent Representative to the WTO, credentialed as ‘Observer to the UN Office in Geneva.’ Falemaka’s role now extends to incorporate all UN agencies and other international organisations in Geneva.
Despite this, Forum Secretary General Taylor is concerned that increased UN activity in the Pacific may draw human and financial resources away from the local organisations that make up the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP).
“Funding for multilateral organisations is not what it used to be – it’s decreasing everywhere,” she said. “Even the money that’s coming into the CROP agencies has decreased over the last four years. Competition for funds is going to be a concern. I want to see funding coming into the CROP agencies, because I want to see the investment in the capacity of Pacific island people.
She added: “If resources are substantive enough and can accommodate what the UN wants to do and what the CROP wants to do, then our role is to find where the alignments are and how we can work together.”
Carrot and stick
However, the success of the PSIDS group operating in the United Nations comes with costs, as major powers use carrot and stick to keep smaller states in line. This was evident with this month’s resolution to the UNGA on “Cooperation between the United Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum.”
The resolution was proposed by Nauru’s UN Ambassador and adopted by the UNGA in a recorded vote of 137 - 0, with 12 abstentions.
However, major powers like China, Russia and Indonesia all abstained, while the United States formally expressed its reservations, despite voting for the motion (the US delegation opposed references in the resolution to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, both of which are opposed by the Trump administration).
China’s Ambassador to the UN stressed that “the coordinator of negotiations failed to consider his delegation’s contributions and the concerns of other States”, a barbed reference to the Nauru government, which is aligned with Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic (at last year’s Forum Partner Dialogue, a Chinese diplomat stormed out of the meeting after disputing a ruling by Forum chair Baron Waqa of Nauru).
This year’s Forum host Tuvalu is also one of six Pacific countries aligned with Taiwan, which will add to the Taiwan-China jousting in regional affairs. Taiwan is using its relationship with Pacific allies to lobby for UN membership. In September 2018, Nauru, Tuvalu and Marshall Islands all used their annual speeches at the UNGA to call on the United Nations to “seek a solution to include Taiwan in all its process, including the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the World Health Organisation.”
Indonesia too abstained on this month’s UN resolution, with their representative regretting that “one member of the Pacific Islands Forum continued to interfere with Indonesia’s domestic affairs” – a reference to Vanuatu, which has long supported the right to self-determination for the people of West Papua. The Vanuatu government has been lobbying for stronger action by the Forum to address human rights violation by the Indonesian military and police in West Papua – an issue to be debated this week in Funafuti.
Given growing regional support for the United Liberation Moment of West Papua (ULMWP), Indonesia has joined the UN Special Committee of Decolonisation, alongside Fiji and Papua New Guinea, in part to block any move to have West Papua re-listed as a non-self-governing territory by the United Nations. Indonesian diplomats, like their French counterparts, were horrified when Tuvalu, Nauru and Solomon Islands successfully moved a motion through the UNGA in 2013, relisting French Polynesia as a non-self-governing territory.
The theme of this week’s meeting in Tuvalu is “Securing our Future in the Pacific”, with leaders planning to discuss the regional agenda for coming decades. But at a time of growing geo-political conflict between China and the United States and shifting power in Asia and Europe, island states will need to maintain their collective voice to be heard on the global stage.