Legal jostling over Marshall Islands’ Forum status derailing unity efforts

David Kabua. PHOTO: SPC

Marshall Islands President David Kabua will not be in Suva for the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting this week because  members of his own government have “derailed” an effort to reverse the country’s withdrawal from the Forum.

The Marshall Islands Journal reports that the Nitijela (parliament) Resolution 35, adopted in February 2021, was allowed to stand on the books despite an impassioned statement by the president earlier this year calling for reconciliation and remaining in the Forum, and an attempt by the Speaker of parliament to rescind the earlier resolution.

The resolution adopted last year endorsed the Marshall Islands denouncement of the Pacific Islands Forum and supported the government’s letter, submitted in early March last year, to withdraw from the Forum.

“We are not a member of the Pacific Islands Forum right now,” said speaker Kenneth Kedi Saturday in Majuro.

The one-year period from the time the Marshall Islands filed its denouncement letter with Fiji expired 10 March this year, legally ending this North Pacific nation’s membership.

“We are no longer members as of March 2022. Since we’re not a member of the Forum, we should not participate. Otherwise, it would violate our constitution.”

President Kabua has been one of the driving forces behind reconciliation efforts between the Forum and its Micronesian members.

The five Micronesia area members – Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau – had earlier agreed to pull out of the Forum if their nominee for the secretary general post was not accepted. Current Forum Secretary General Henry Puna won a hotly contested vote 9-8 to win the nomination over Micronesia’s nomination of Marshall Islands Ambassador to Washington Gerald Zackios.

“The true essence of the ‘Pacific Way’ is purposeful unifying action for the common good, building bridges of understanding, nurturing strong bonds of friendship and goodwill, and peaceful coexistence among people and nations,” Kabua said in his February appeal to the Micronesia leaders.

To make president Kabua’s words effective as a matter of government policy, speaker Kedi, the day after Kabua sent his letter to Aingimea in February, introduced Resolution 35 to rescind the 2021 resolution on the books. But the speaker’s resolution was entirely rewritten by committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to delete all references to rescinding the earlier resolution and instead stated the parliament’s endorsement only of the few month “pause” in the decision to leave. Kedi, so angered by the rewrite, pulled the resolution off the table, leaving the earlier legislation in place.

“I’ve been a proponent of staying in the Forum and I tried to solve the problem,” Kedi said. “I don’t know what the foreign policy of this government is, but in my opinion, we should work with the Forum and support our partners.”

He added that the Forum represents 18 countries and partners. “Unfortunately we are battling among ourselves,” he said of the leaders of the Marshall Islands. “We should never have pulled out of the forum because someone was mad (about the vote electing Puna). Instead of withdrawing, we should have stayed to fix it. We’re outside the arena now. What benefits did we get out of it?”

Kiribati this week signalled its intention to withdraw from the Forum. Nauru is not attending due to the COVID outbreak in the country. Palau and FSM’s leaders are in attendance.