Jan 25, 2021 Last Updated 3:51 PM, Jan 25, 2021

The Heads of the Pacific Islands Forum Governments will meet virtually in early February 2021 to choose the next Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), to succeed the outgoing Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor DBE of Papua New Guinea. 

This is perhaps the first time that we see as many as five regional island candidates, seeking to fill the position of the next Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. Much has been written about each of the five eminent candidates from Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, The Cook Islands and The Marshall Islands. It is a formidable task faced by the Heads of Member Governments of the PIF, to choose one from among the five but there remains high hopes that they, as usual, will come to a consensus candidate in the true Pacific Way.  

The appointment of a new Secretary General comes at a time of increasingly complex geopolitical shifts, with long-established global powers – the United States, China, Japan, France, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – now jostling for more influence in the region. There are also new players, such as India, South Korea, and Indonesia showing much greater influence and interest in the region. Coupled with this, the Island economies are battling with the effects of COVID 19 pandemic on its fragile development, the adverse effects of climate change and the new age of rapid technology developments. In the face of these global challenges, the Forum is a crucial mechanism to forge regional responses.

Among the contenders for the Secretary General is the former and seasoned Fijian Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009 to 2017), Ratu Inoke Kubuabola. In a statement putting forward the candidature of Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, the Prime Minister of Fiji, Hon Voreqe Bainimarama said it was a decision that the Fijian Government had undertaken after careful consideration of the complex regional environment and the need for strong and decisive leadership at the Pacific Island Forum at this time. Prime Minister Bainimarama said that Ratu Inoke Kubuabola’s leadership will be instrumental in charting the course for the next 50 years, particularly in developing a form of regionalism that responds to member needs beginning with the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific.

Historically, Fiji’s first and most revered Prime Minister, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara led through his foresight, leadership and efforts, the establishment of regional institutions such South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation (SPEC), later known as the South Pacific Forum, and now known the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). It was also at his insistence that Australia and New Zealand were wisely included as members of the SPEC together with the independent and self-governing island states of the South Pacific. Fiji fully acknowledges the distinctive and exceptional nature of the PIF in that it is an organization of developed and developing countries of the region.

Since its inception in 1971, the precursors of PIF and PIF were established to provide a setting for Heads of Governments to discuss common issues and problems facing the development issues of independent and self-governing states of the South Pacific.  Fiji has been the pillar of the Forum since its formation and has always proudly and honourably hosted the PIF Secretariat.  In that period of time, Fiji has never insisted on securing its own national as the Secretary General although it has had qualified candidates ever since the early days of 1971, and on one occasion it had even offered a most qualified Fijian candidate. It has always given way to regional consensus, even though there have been occasions when individual regional countries have provided Secretary Generals on more one occasion.

Even at the time of its deepest crisis when it was suspended from the PIF, Fiji continued to host the PIF Secretariat and gave it its full support and did not interfere with its integrity. This was maintained largely under the strong leadership of Fiji’s then Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, who kept his door open to formal and informal contacts through-out Fiji’s difficult years, with each one of the PIF Foreign Ministers and more particularly with his counterparts in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). Ratu Kubuabola enjoyed the trust and confidence of his ANZ counterparts throughout this period since taking up his Office in 2009. He showed his diplomatic and personal skills through out these times.

Fiji re-joined the Forum at the official’s level at its first opportunity, leading to its full participation at the Heads of Government level.

Fiji now firmly believes that on its 50th anniversary of Independence and with its proven leadership credentials on the international and regional fora in the last decade, especially during the tenure of Ratu Inoke Kubuabola as the Fijian Foreign Minister, it should make claim for its national the Position of Secretary General during the exceptional global and regional challenges faced by the region.

I have had the privilege to know and to work most closely and robustly with Ratu Inoke Kubuabola during parts of his tenure as Foreign Minister when I was Fiji’s first Ambassador to Middle East and North African Countries, based in Abu Dhabi and later during part of my tenure as the Head of the Fijian Foreign Ministry. He always respected frank, honest, and fearless advice. I agree totally with the former distinguished and long term Foreign Minister of Australia, Ms Julie Bishop when she described Ratu Inoke as “an effective and principled Fijian Foreign Minister” and  a “proud and passionate Pacific Islander who would be an ideal candidate for the role of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum”.

I have worked alongside Ratu Inoke on many international and regional issues but one that stands out in mind is perhaps our joint effort, but under his leadership, to free 45 Fijian United Nations Peacekeepers who were taken hostage by a Syrian Terrorist Group, the Al Nusra occupying Southern Syria, adjacent to the Golan Heights. This was perhaps Fiji’s most challenging international confrontation in its decades of Independence, and its greatest challenge ever in both their international and domestic spheres.

Unfortunately, our efforts and trust through the intervention of the United Nations, proved futile. We were alone to free our soldiers and to bring them home quickly to their most distressed and confused families, and during a critical period for the Government leading into Fiji’s first national General Elections in 2014 after the 2006 military coup. This was made more urgent especially when we found out that Fiji’s captured soldiers were not only under threat for their lives from the Al Nusra Group but we were informed through regional intelligence contacts, that militias loyal to the Syrian Government had decided to kill our soldiers and blame it on Al Nusra, to prove to the world the alleged barbarity of Al Nusra.

Fiji, as a small island developing country, far, far away from the complex world of the Middle Eastern politics was all alone in this potentially disastrous situation, to rescue our men, even though they were in fact UN soldiers. Under the sole principled leadership of Ratu Inoke and in direct consultation with him, I had to develop our strategy. Ratu Inoke had laid the perimeters; we were morally opposed to negotiating any financial deals let alone being in a financial position to even consider it, although we were warned that our strategy will encounter such a demand. We embarked on clever diplomacy of our own with countries of the region to see who might be able to use their influence with Al Nusra. Through exhaustive and sensitive consultations, we were able to convince a sympathetic country which had close contact with the Al Nusra and was agreeable, after our many overtures and persuasion, to negotiate on our behalf, a sensitive and safe release. When Qatar delivered us the release of our men through their influence, the response of the Qatari Foreign Minister to the expression of Fiji’s sincere appreciation through Ratu Inoke in person at the Qatari Foreign Minister’s Office, were the words that it was “Qatar’s humanitarian gesture for Fiji”. Even the closest of our regional allies were astonished to see our diplomacy at work without any talk of ransom money. This is the calibre of the diplomat and a Leader in Ratu Inoke that Fiji is offering to the region.

Ratu Inoke Kubuabola has been Fiji’s Foreign Minister during Fiji’s most of the difficult days internationally following the 2006 coup d’état, lifting Fiji from there to leadership positions internationally. It was under Ratu Inoke’s calm and considered stewardship, that Fiji has been recognized as an international leader, no small feat for an individual from a small Pacific island developing country in the Pacific. Fiji has been internationally recognized for its leadership on international issues in being elected to leadership roles, for example, among others,

  • President of the Executive Board of the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Population Fund, and the United Nations Office of Project Services;
  • Fiji's Chairmanship of the Group of 77 and China, the UN's largest negotiating group, made up of 133 developing countries;
  • President of the 17th Session of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority (ISA),
  • President of 21st Session of the ISA Council;
  • The name-change of the UN's Regional Group from that of "the Asian Group" to its new name of "the Asia-Pacific Group";
  • President of the United Nations General Assembly;
  • Co-President of the UN Oceans Conference;
  • Presidency of the CoP 23; and
  • Member of the Human Rights Council.

Ratu Inoke will bring these enormous capacity, experience, abilities, and credentials to the region. In performing these international functions, Ratu Inoke has always been cognizant in carrying the region with him and Fiji, being inclusive of the PIF Region by holding appropriate regional consultations and in contributing enormously to many regional initiatives.

The Fijian Government believes that Ratu Inoke Kubuabola has demonstrated strong leadership and effective management through his many Ministerial positions and institutional reforms. Fiji is confident that with this appointment, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola will strategically position the PIF to better serve our Blue Pacific Continent and its peoples. Fiji further believes that Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, with his proven record, is the optimal candidate to steer PIF forward in this modern era of the serious effects of climate change on the Island Countries of region, urgent need for the further development of the region’s social and economic needs, the rapid developments in modern technology, global tensions in trade, the emerging sentiments back towards greater protectionism of local industries for national security, and the aftermath of COVID19. Through the experience, capacity and the trust that Ratu Inoke has built with countries around the world and in the region, I believe that Ratu Inoke Kubuabola will be the best appointment to make a great contribution towards restoring and reinforcing the PIF’s significant role in the region.

Ambassador Robin Nair OF is an Adjunct Professor at the Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia. He has had the unique distinction of serving as a senior diplomat internationally for two countries, a developed and a developing country, Australia, and Fiji. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the publisher.

In my last article in this magazine, I referred to the structure of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and its system of decision-making as being antiquated. This was on the basis that PIF’s type of regionalism is voluntary. Members are not legally bound to the decisions they make at the regional level. I suggested the prospect of its reconsideration as a means of enhancing the benefits to members.

I also pointed to the deficiencies in regional cooperation, regional integration for example, in the last 49 years of PIF’s existence, as areas to be redressed for greater benefits to members.

The direct implication of that hinted at a decision-making process that would be a reversal of the status quo: Involuntary regionalism, which would mean binding decisions at the regional level. Furthermore, that would necessitate derogation of sufficient state power to the region to enable the latter to make those decisions.

From my perspective, as one schooled in the classical Barassa model of regionalism – linear, with regional economic integration—advanced economic union, for example—and having worked 14 years in the European Union that exemplifies such a model, my assumption of eventual derogation of power from the states to the region was one I had thought to be a natural progression for Pacific regionalism. But it is not to be.

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A rare conjunction of events is emerging. The events are both directional and prescriptive. The conjunction’s rarity is evocative. The conjunction provides an opportunity for Pacific regionalism (or the Pacific Islands Forum, PIF) to reinvent itself in order to capture the lost grounds it has frittered away since its genesis.

The calendrical end-of-the-year is synergised by institutional, exceptional and wider regional and global events whose essences can additionally incentivise the creative embodiment of the reinvention so needed.

December 2020 brings to an end the services of the incumbent PIFS Secretary General (SG), Dame Meg Taylor. Her replacement will take office in January 2021. The incoming SG’s terms of reference will be set out in the provisions of the 2050 Strategy, currently being compiled. The institutional processes of PIF will ensure fulfillment of that specific objective.

Candidates for the SG’s job and their respective proponents are active at their respective lobbying and public relations drives to get the nod at the final tape. Tongan candidate, Ms Amelia Siamomua has woven her own talanoa into her promotional public relations. I have put this down to an exceptional event, in the context of this article. Her rallying call of ‘Lalaga’ or weaving to resetting the Blue Pacific is built upon what she calls as the 4Cs – coordination, cooperation, commitment and care.

Other exceptional events are contributing to the conjunction.

I explored Dr Transform Aqorau’s ‘Imagining a new post-COVID-19 international economic order’ in the November 2020 issue of this magazine. I situated that scenario in the context of Pacific regionalism and cautioned a degree of hindsight to learning from what had happened in the past. That, however, is not to decry in anyway the relevance of post-COVID-19 events in this conjunction.

Being a regional champion himself, Dr Aqorau has just released his latest book: ‘Fishing For Success’ – Lessons in Pacific Regionalism. His philosophy of ‘applying limits to create scarcity and then be innovative about the opportunities for economic development’, is a rallying cry for all sectors of operation in Pacific regionalism going forward.

Non-governmental organisations, like the Pacific Theological College’s Institute for Mission and Research, is also getting into the act. Its ‘Reweaving the Ecological Mat (REM) works towards establishing an ecological framework for development.

An exceptional event but very much guided by the PIF Secretariat at the institutional level is work on climate change and sea level rise, directed at ensuring that members’ maritime zones are set in perpetuity once delineated. This work is critical for the sustainable future of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), especially the Smaller Island States (SIS).

Two events – first within PIF and the second, at the Pacific rim to the east, add particular significance to the conjunction. New Zealand’s recent elections have seen the emergence of Hon Nanaia Mahuta as its first woman Foreign Affairs Minister. Maori herself, she will be able to view and regard her country’s ‘Pacific Reset’ programme in the region compassionately and with accustomed astuteness.  The region anticipates from her due respect for PICs’ agency on all regional and global issues and proper exercise of political economy and geopolitical influences that unite rather than those which divide.

Moreover, the exciting and new US Presidential team, in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will add compelling prospects and a more consultative approach to the conduct of the Indo-Pacific geostrategy.  But more so, the team offers a welcome support for the US return to the Paris Declaration on climate change. This, with a bit of luck, may compel Australia to properly honour and respect the climate change provisions under the Boe Declaration.

The conjunction is special and specific in the life of Pacific regionalism. The opportunity it connotes should not be wasted. PIF has to take huge strides, reinvent itself through the provisions of the 2050 Strategy. This is an opportunity, inter alia, to make good where it had failed in the past.

On regional cooperation, the 2012 ‘What Can We Learn Symposium’ concluded that the whole process was both cost ineffective and cost inefficient. The new normal, post-COVID-19, with greater use of information technology for on-line meetings, for example, is a good start in terms of cost effectiveness. Moreover, PICs particularly have got to better rationalise their attendance at these meetings. Prioritisation on the basis of anticipated benefits and minimisation of opportunity costs has to feature prominently in their decision-making.

Efforts at regional integration in the past – of member country themselves and of their various regional organizations have been undermined through, inter alia, costly duplication. The 2005 Regional Institutional Framework report had relevant recommendations to resolve this concern. However, some recommendations were irrationally politicised. The full impact of those expedient recommendations was thus undermined. PIF needs to do better next time around.

When it comes to regional economic integration, the regional experience is nothing to be proud of. The idea of an economic union for the PICs was conceived way back in 1971, 49 years ago. The Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA), an essential building block for such a union, only came into force in 2001, and today – 19 years later, only 50% of its signatories are implementing the agreement. 

In 2018, the First Quadrennial Pacific Sustainable Development Report (FQPSDR) listed seven challenges for the region, one of which was: “Economically, whilst we see trends of sustained growth, it is often inequitable.” But that is only part of the story. PICs have remained as one of the highest aid recipients in the world on a per capita basis.  PIF has to turn this around.

When it comes to regional pooling of resources, PIF cannot be proud of its past record in the areas of regional shipping and regional aviation. Even its current record, through the shenanigans at USP, is nothing to write home about. Better management of its exercise of sovereignty transfers from members is called for. Members themselves have got to impose restraining orders when it comes to exercising their influence on other members and on the conduct of regional organisations, including the Forum Secretariat. This is particularly pertinent in the consideration of political economy and geopolitics.

Any work on revitalising Pacific regionalism has to include a frank review of its structure. Pacific regionalism is voluntary regionalism. Members are not legally bound to the decisions they make. In this day and age, when leaders are increasingly being called and pressured to be accountable and deliver, the PIF system seems antiquated.

Apart from that, PIF membership is atypical. The dichotomy between the PICs and the developed countries of Australia and New Zealand has created its own challenges. There may have been a tendency in the past to over-emphasise their differences. Given the collective and the unifying rallying call of the Blue Pacific continent, the regional planners are obligated to unite and bridge the dichotomous chasm that exists. The unity so formed needs to be reflected at all times and at different levels including at the multilateral level.

The Forum Secretariat and its operations to effectively and efficiently deliver to the Leaders their annual meetings, especially their Retreats, seem to be over scrutinised and analysed. The Secretariat really needs to just pick up the gauntlet and start putting the fine recommendations that have been proposed in various reports over time. These include measures relating to its meeting processes and strategising for the most productive use of Leaders’ time at their annual get-togethers. Of particular consideration also is the provision of technical assistance to deserving members which is currently lacking.

A contributing event to the conjunction is the appointment of the new PIFS SG. The underlying problem is the existence of what is referred to as a ‘gentlemen’s agreement.’ To mark a new departure - a new dawn for Pacific regionalism, such an agreement can be critically reviewed; and, if justified, can be documented as future guide.

The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji. 

 

 

The Pacific Islands Forum will hold a two hour virtual summit tonight, dubbed “Kainaki II to COP 26 - a High-Level Roundtable on Urgent Climate Change Action.”

This week’s online summit comes on the eve of the 5th anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the day before a global Climate Ambition Summit 2020, initiated by the United Nations, United Kingdom, and France. With no face to face Forum leaders meeting in 2020, island Presidents and Prime Ministers want to build momentum around the “Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now”, adopted at the 2019 Forum in Tuvalu.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s global climate negotiations - the annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties - have been postponed until November 2021. To maintain momentum on climate action, this weekend’s online summits seek to use the anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement for countries to make stronger commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the desperate need to keep global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius, existing commitments under the Paris Agreement put the world on a pathway to nearly 3 degrees. Kainaki says “without urgent action, we will exceed 1.5°C by as early as 2030.”

Last year’s Kainaki II Declaration urged updated pledges on emissions reductions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), calling on “all Parties to the Paris Agreement to formulate and communicate mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020.”

Earlier this week, in her keynote speech to the Australasian Emissions Reduction Summit, Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor said: “Governments cannot keep saying, ‘we’re going to do it’, we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it’. We’ve reached a point now where we’ve got 1.2 degrees and we can’t afford to go beyond 1.5.”

Taylor stressed: “Pacific Island Forum leaders have consistently reaffirmed climate change as an existential threat to the region. It is the single greatest threat to the livelihood and the wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific. The science is clear; it is imperative that we limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to ensure our children inherit a safe and healthy planet.”

Calling for urgent action from the Morrison government in Australia – the Forum’s largest member – she noted: “The commitment of Australian state governments to net zero carbon by 2050 is a win for humanity and we look forward to that same ambition at the federal level.”

The notice issued by the Forum Secretariat for tomorrow’s Forum climate summit also highlights that 2020 is “the year by which developed country Parties to the Agreement are expected to meet their commitment to jointly mobilise US $100 billion per year in climate finance from a variety of sources.”

It’s a reminder to the Morrison government that it needs to contribute its fair share of the global commitment of climate funding to developing nations, after Australia joined the Trump Administration in the United States and refused new funding to the Green Climate Fund. With incoming President Joe Biden pledging to re-join the Paris Agreement, there is increasing focus on the need for greater climate ambition even as countries recover from the economic damage of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Other Pacific leaders – past and present – are calling for greater climate ambition from Australia and New Zealand as the largest Forum members. On 1 December, former President of Kiribati Anote Tong published an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, stating that “you can’t solve the climate crisis without addressing the growing supply of fossil fuels.”

He criticised Australia’s latest policy shift towards opening up new gas exploration, noting: “It was most regrettable that the recent Australian federal budget has again chosen to support the fossil fuel industry through a ‘gas-led’ recovery rather than heed the warnings by science and of nature of the clear and present danger facing our people from the multifaceted impacts of climate change.”

Tong stressed: “In 2015, I wrote to every world leader ahead of the Paris Agreement calling for a moratorium on new coal mines. The same moratorium should apply to gas fields.”

Australia has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world and is the world’s number one exporter of metallurgical coal, used for steelmaking (in 2019-2020, 177 million tonnes of metallurgical coal worth A$35.5 billion was exported). Australia is also the second largest exporter of thermal coal, used for electricity generation, which is ‘dirtier’ and generates more greenhouse gasses when burnt. In 2019-2020, a further 213 million tonnes of thermal coal were exported, generating A$20.9 billion.

However some energy corporations are increasingly concerned that these resources may become stranded assets, losing their value as other countries shift from fossil fuels to renewables. Revenues dropped in late 2020, as prices were hit by the slowdown of the global economy during the pandemic. Despite China’s ongoing use of coal, there are significant shifts in electricity generation towards renewables, and Australian exports are hit by political as well as market changes (by late November, more than 70 coal ships were anchored off Chinese ports, as Beijing pushed back against Australian support for US policy in the Asia-Pacific region).

COVID, climate and oceans were high on the agenda, as foreign ministers and officials from around the region met online on 14 October, for the 2020 Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting (FFMM).

This year’s ministerial summit focussed on the COVID-19 crisis and post-pandemic recovery; actions to address the ongoing challenge of climate change; policy on oceans and the impact of sea level rise on maritime boundaries; and finalising an agenda to place before the virtual meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders, likely to be held in early November.

Each year, a Forum Officials Committee meets to discuss the draft agenda for the annual Forum, and thrash out initial draft language that can square the circle over sensitive issues. In 2015, a Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting was added to the list of regional meetings, designed to free up more time for Presidents and Prime Ministers to talk freely amongst themselves at the annual leaders’ summit.

Pandemic response

Opening the online FFMM, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor noted the success of regional co-operation in the early days of the pandemic: “Using available regional mechanisms such as the Biketawa Declaration and the Boe Declaration, we were able to achieve a world first with the establishment and operationalisation of the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19, our regional response platform which has been able to move around 47,000 kilograms or 466 cubic metres  of medical and humanitarian supplies through our region.”

The regional response to COVID-19 initially prioritised the distribution of medical supplies, testing kits and technical assistance. But Forum member countries, especially those without any confirmed cases of coronavirus, are increasingly looking at the social and economic damage caused by border closures and disrupted trade and tourism.

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe chaired the ministerial summit and spoke to journalists after the meeting. He highlighted “the need to address the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 crisis on vulnerable groups, including persons with disability, the elderly and women and girls - an issue faced by the full Forum membership.”

One ongoing challenge for smaller island states is to organise the return of citizens who have been working or studying abroad. Kiribati and Tuvalu are seeking assistance from the United Nations and neighbouring countries to bring home seafarers and seasonal workers who must transit through regional travel hubs like Auckland, Nauru or Nadi. The Tuvalu Foreign Minister recognised that many of his own nationals have found it hard to return home and “hundreds of i-Kiribati seafarers are amongst those in limbo as they were at sea, awaiting repatriation home and they’ve been stuck for many months.”

The FFMM proposed further discussions on a regional quarantine facility and travel bubbles to allow the transit of affected workers.

Simon Kofe stressed that developing countries need economic support during the recovery, but also ongoing medical assistance: “Ministers highlighted the need for cooperative, multilateral approaches to allow equitable access to trusted and certified COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines and ensuring their accountable and transparent procurement and distribution.”

Dame Meg Taylor confirmed that access to vaccines was a crucial next step in the regional response: “Our governments have been working very closely with different groupings to make sure that the Pacific secures vaccines. We had a very strong commitment from the Australian Prime Minister during this meeting that Australia would make sure that as they access vaccines, they would ensure that the Pacific was also able to access that vaccine.”

At a time of geopolitical contest in the region between China and the ANZUS allies, the Forum Secretary General diplomatically noted that Australia was not the only potential source for vaccines: “The leaders - all of them, hopefully - will be emphasising that we get our fair share of the vaccines and this is not just through Australia and New Zealand. If there are opportunities for vaccines from elsewhere that have been cleared, I know there is some of our countries that are working with different groupings to ensure that those vaccines will be available.”

The foreign ministers discussed a common statement “Protecting the health and well-being of the Blue Pacific”, to be presented to leaders and then to the forthcoming Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on COVID-19 in December.

Climate policy

In her opening speech to the meeting, Dame Meg Taylor stated: “Notwithstanding COVID-19 and whether there is a vaccine today or tomorrow, we will continue to face a more pressing challenge, the existential threat of climate change and its related impacts.”

The Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) was the first Pacific country to lodge an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and has been calling on fellow Forum members to put forward more ambitious NDCs.

After the FFMM, RMI Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Casten Nemra said: “The Pacific region reaffirmed at ministerial level the determination to uphold the Paris Agreement and to deliver new, more ambitious nationally determined contributions in this fifth anniversary year of the landmark international accord. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, new climate ambition in the Pacific is indispensable to our building back better.”

Secretary General Taylor acknowledged that “for some countries, coming through with NDCs may pose some internal challenges,” but said the FFMM had reaffirmed the regional policy adopted at last year’s Forum Leaders Meeting in Funafuti: “The ministers reaffirmed their support for the ‘Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Action Now ’ and that is as important this year as it was last year.”

Marshall Islands is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and is using this position to leverage greater action on climate change. At the FFMM, Foreign Minister Nemra obtained regional support from his counterparts to campaign for a UN Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights. Fiji is currently another island member of the UNHRC, and backed this initiative in the meeting.

Nemra explained: “In endorsing the creation of a dedicated new UN Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights, the Pacific region will remain at the forefront of ambitious new actions to uphold rights threatened by the climate emergency facing all societies. We look forward to working with the entire region and the international community, as well as within the UN Human Rights Council, to secure this vital new mandate for overcoming the climate crisis by next year.”

This year’s 26th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Glasgow (COP26) was deferred because of the pandemic, but there are still regional and global efforts to increase ambition before the meeting, to be held in late 2021. The outcome of November’s Presidential election in the United states will have a major impact on the Paris Agreement, but Pacific island nations are also looking for greater climate action from their Kiwi neighbours, following Saturday’s elections in New Zealand.

Just days after the FFMM, the major victory of the NZ Labour Party in national elections will impact regional as well as domestic policy. Under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Labour now holds a majority in its own right. The elections saw the political demise of former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters, a long-standing figure on the national and regional stage. Peters’ NZ First party failed to meet the 5 per cent threshold to be represented in Parliament and his departure from the former governing coalition removes a constraint on New Zealand’s climate ambition.

This was highlighted the day after the NZ election, with Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama welcoming Jacinda Ardern’s victory in a tweet: “Proud to see my friend @jacindaardern score a historic victory. With a full embrace of a #netzerocommitment by 2050, this was also a landslide win for the climate. Your friends in Fiji are ready to keep moving with our work to make the Pacific and our planet a better place.”

The 2019 leaders meeting in Funafuti saw close collaboration between Bainimarama and Ardern, leaving Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison isolated in his opposition to more urgent, ambitious targets on greenhouse gas emissions and reduced use of fossil fuels.

Forum communiques usually include enough wiggle room to allow members to paper over their differences on climate policy, but the FFMM’s reaffirmation of the Kainaki II Declaration places the Morrison Government in a difficult position. Kainaki calls on parties to the Paris Agreement “to formulate and communicate mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020. This may include commitments and strategies to achieve net zero carbon by 2050.”

The Morrison government has refused to adopt such a strategy, even though a broad coalition of Australian organisations – from environmental groups to the National Farmers Federation and Business Council of Australia – have supported the objective of net zero emissions by 2050. Despite the recent adoption of a “technology road map” on climate, Morrison may face increasing pressure at this year’s Forum leaders meeting over Australia’s lack of ambition on emissions reduction.

Dame Meg Taylor suggested that attempts to water down a Forum consensus on climate action would not constrain island nations in the lead up to COP26: “What we really need to do is to ensure that the Kainaki II Declaration is the basis for our discussion. However there was discussion and acknowledgement that there are other groupings too like the PSIDS, AOSIS and also the Higher Ambition Coalition that many of our member states - particularly the island countries - do belong to. They are going to push hard to make sure that the commitments under the Paris Agreement are met.”

Beyond climate, the Forum Foreign Ministers discussed regional oceans policy, despite the disruption of Blue Pacific advocacy during the UN Year of the Ocean. With Palau scheduled to host a regional oceans summit in December, the Forum will consider establishing a subcommittee to continue work on defining legal maritime boundaries.

At the meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced that the new ‘Pacific Fusion Centre’, currently operating from Canberra, will be based in Vanuatu. The centre will collate information from security and fisheries agencies across Pacific Island countries to provide more comprehensive “real time maritime domain awareness.”

Online leaders’ summit

The 2020 Forum leaders meeting was originally scheduled for August in Vanuatu, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of independence. However health and travel restrictions in the COVID-free nation led to the postponement of a face-to-face meeting. Since then Prime Minister of Tuvalu Kausea Natano, the current Forum Chair, has been negotiating with other leaders to finalise a date for a virtual summit, with a restricted agenda.

Beyond key agenda items of the post-pandemic recovery and climate policy, this year’s meeting must make a decision on the appointment of a new Secretary General for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, as Dame Meg Taylor ends her second term of office next January.

Speaking after the FFMM, Tuvalu's Foreign Minister Simon Kofe said that Prime Minister Natano was still working to finalise a date for the online summit, which should be decided within days: “The process will be determined by the leaders. But in terms of dates, we are looking at November. The majority of members have expressed their preference for the first week of November.”

Five Micronesian leaders have threatened to withdraw from Forum activity if their candidate for Secretary General, RMI’s Gerald Zackios, is not appointed to the post. But Simon Kofe believes that the issue will be resolved, noting: “It's something that the leaders will look into. We are certainly very concerned about the threat from the Micronesians to pull out from the Forum.”

Summing up a successful meeting, Kofe said: “It’s been an extraordinary year this year. We are coming to the end of 2020 and I would say that we faced a number of challenges this year and there are more challenges ahead of us. But as the Pacific, we can draw on our culture and our values to be able to maintain our unity and our resilience through these testing times.”

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