Climate, Covid and Co-ordination: Forum leaders hold online summit

Jacinda Ardern and Voreqe Bainimarama at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders retreat.

A virtual summit of the Pacific Islands Forum will be held this Friday 6 August, after the annual face-to-face meeting of presidents and prime ministers was again disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

After the 2020 summit in Vanuatu was cancelled, any hope for a face-to-face meeting this year has been dashed by the current surge of coronavirus cases across Fiji. As Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano ends two challenging years as Forum chair, Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama will take up the role over the next year. Regional leaders will meet online this week with a restricted agenda, with the hope they might gather again in early 2022.

Seizing power in the 2006 coup, Prime Minister Bainimarama first attended the Forum in 2009, seeking to head off Fiji’s suspension from the regional organisation after the abrogation of the Fiji constitution. He only attended again in 2019, as Tuvalu hosted the last full summit in Funafuti.

As this year’s host, Bainimarama is now one of the longest serving leaders in the region, alongside Solomon Islands leader Manasseh Sogavare. There are new faces as well. Samoa’s incoming Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa comes to her first Forum, replacing Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, who served as Prime Minister from 1998 until his recent electoral defeat. Another newcomer will be New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou, the first pro-independence leader of a government in the French dependency in nearly 40 years.

It will also be interesting to see who signs in from the five Micronesian nations, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia. These countries formally announced their withdrawal from the Forum earlier this year, angered by the election of Henry Puna as Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat, who defeated the joint Micronesian candidate, Ambassador Gerald Zackios of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Since then, out of public view, Forum chair Natano has begun a process to woo the five Micronesian nations – nearly a third of the Forum’s 18 members – back into the fold. This closed door political dialogue has been conducted between regional leaders, without the involvement of the Forum Secretariat in Suva. But can the Pacific’s key regional organisation resolve Micronesian concerns about transparency and democracy, a perceived lack of focus on North Pacific issues and their proposal to shift the Forum leadership around the region?

Beyond this fundamental challenge within the Forum, the online summit will discuss a number of pressing concerns: the health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Forum’s plan for a 2050 Blue Pacific strategy, preparations for next November’s UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow and other issues raised by leaders, old and new.

Pandemic response

Throughout 2020, the regional response to the global coronavirus pandemic was overlaid by the geopolitical contest between the United States, China, Taiwan and other players. With offers of assistance from a range of bilateral and multilateral partners, smaller island states sought to coordinate the arrival of crucial personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits and other equipment. This year, there is a similar level of jousting between major powers over the provision of Covid-19 vaccines, with China offering Sinopharm, the United States and France rolling out Pfizer to their Pacific territories, and Australia sharing locally-produced AstraZeneca.

At a special summit in April 2020, Forum foreign ministers initiated the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19, a regional mechanism to coordinate the transit and arrival of medical supplies and equipment. Since then, Pacific officials have created a Covid Economic Recovery Taskforce and other regional structures to address the devastating economic impacts on employment, trade, tourism and supply chains. The Forum Secretariat has led a Socio-Economic Impact Assessment Taskforce, gathering data from the member agencies of the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP).

Last month’s Forum Economic Ministers Meeting (FEMM) also began discussions about whether the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway could be expanded to assist movement of other goods. FEMM tasked officials to investigate “the establishment of a viable, time-bound and sustainable mechanism facilitating the movement of goods at subsidised rates in support of Pacific SME businesses during disasters and economic shocks.”

During this fast moving crisis, exacerbated by the spread of the new Delta variant, many Forum member countries are trying to analyse medium term economic prospects. Will tourism bounce back as vaccinations spread, allowing more “travel bubbles” in the region? How will remittances be affected by ongoing economic turmoil in Pacific Rim countries that host seasonal workers and large Pasifika diasporas? What are the impacts of increased debt and soft loans required for economic stimulus packages?

With the pandemic certain to drag on well into 2022, Forum leaders will also discuss constraints on mobility of people around the region: stranded seafarers from Kiribati and Tuvalu, who must transit through multiple travel hubs to return home; seasonal workers moving to and from Australia and New Zealand; and students and officials returning from education and training in Europe, China and beyond.

Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s Minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, is concerned that this movement across international borders may soon require certification or “vaccine passports.” This will be challenging within the islands region, given the mixture of vaccines supplied by different development partners, and the digital gap between urban and rural populations. Speaking to journalists after he chaired last month’s Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting, Kofe explained: “We’ve seen in other parts of the world that this has been politicised, with certain countries not recognising vaccines developed in another part of the world. We want to ensure that in our part of the world, we coordinate to ensure we’re harmonising our rules, our standards and our protocols.”

As reported in the June edition of Islands Business, there are also debates amongst Forum member countries over the waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

Under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, pharmaceutical companies have a 20-year monopoly on coronavirus vaccines and treatments. Governments must negotiate with the major corporations that control both quantity and price. Even the largest Forum member Australia has experienced problems with timely supply of the Pfizer vaccine, giving it the lowest level of vaccination amongst OECD countries. It’s a greater challenge for small island developing states, as more infectious variants like the Delta strain spread around the globe.

Last year, Fiji and Vanuatu formally joined a push by South Africa, India and other developing nations to change WTO rules, seeking to waive monopoly patents and copyright on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment for the duration of the pandemic. Until recently, Australia has been one of the OECD countries resisting this proposed waiver under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Now the Biden administration, followed by France, New Zealand and the European Union, are starting to shift their policy to accept a limited waiver. Will Australia make the same change?

During the latest COVID surges in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, Canberra has assisted with much welcomed provision of vaccines and medical support, but this week’s summit will discuss the longer term outlook for health and economy. Given the likelihood of future pandemics, the need to develop greater global pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity and reduce costs is a major agenda item for island leaders.

Framing the Blue Pacific

Since the adoption of Sustainable Develop Goal 14 on the oceans and seas in 2015, the Pacific has been at the forefront of promoting new international law on maritime spaces and the governance of the oceans. Fiji’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Peter Thomson, serves as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean.

Last December, the Republic of Palau postponed the “Our Oceans 2020” conference, a global summit addressing economic, environmental and legal challenges facing the liquid continent. But ocean governance and management of marine resources and biodiversity continues as a core regional issue.

The 2017 Forum Leaders Meeting in Apia adopted the framework of “the Blue Pacific”, to highlight the interconnection of climate, oceans, fisheries and maritime boundaries amongst Pacific large ocean states. This week’s summit will continue discussion on a range of contemporary challenges: the possible loss of territory due to sea level rise; exploitation of marine resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction, outside the Exclusive Economic Zones created by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; and ongoing battles to replace colonial maritime boundaries, such as the long-running dispute between France and Vanuatu over Matthew and Hunter islands.

At their last face-to-face summit, Forum leaders tasked officials to develop a long-term strategy for the Blue Pacific over the next 30 years. A task force of officials, led by Fiji and Vanuatu, are working to develop this “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.” This week, Forum leaders will be presented with an update on the process, which will likely be opened up for more community consultation and involvement in coming months.

Can a strategy like this look 30 years into the future? For Secretary General Henry Puna, Pacific regional cooperation will only work if governments and communities look beyond immediate concerns.

“The simple truth is this: the world today is not the same world we had 20 years ago,” Puna said before the meeting. “Because the world is changing all the time, we need to come up with a strategy to incorporate and cope with those changes. That’s why there is a need for a 2050 strategy, so we can start anticipating and planning for the changes that will take place and for those that we expect to take place over the next 30 years or so.”

A crucial part of this 2050 strategy will be reviewing the regional architecture of Forum meetings and CROP organisations, given the diversity of membership and the role of colonial powers like the United States and France in the Pacific Community and South Pacific Regional Environment Program (the SPC has just signed a multi-year, multi-million euro agreement with the French government).

The 2050 strategy process provides an opportunity to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of regional organisations, given some tensions amongst and between CROP members. Last year, the University of the South Pacific (USP) was disrupted by a bitter dispute between Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and USP Chancellor Winston Thompson, which led to Ahluwalia’s expulsion from Fiji and relocation to Samoa. In 2020, Forum Foreign Ministers also recommended the Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP) be removed from CROP membership. The axe was stayed by the cancellation of the 2020 leaders’ meeting. PIDP’s base in Hawai’i may now protect it, given renewed US engagement in the region from the Biden administration.

Many governments have turned inwards during the pandemic to prioritise domestic political priorities, even as the Forum agenda expands and new players promote complex issues, from human rights in West Papua to the scourge of violence against women. Over many years, participation at the annual Pacific Islands Forum has grown, with an increasing number of Forum Dialogue Partners, official observers, media and delegations from civil society and the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation (PIPSO).

When they met in Nauru in 2018, Smaller Island States leaders worried that their own priorities could be pushed aside. Noting the “increasing complexities of the geopolitical environment as well as the increasing interest of traditional and non-traditional partners in the Blue Pacific”, SIS leaders called for “the need to be provided the space and time to be able to discuss issues and priorities of shared importance.”

One advantage of going online is that Forum leaders avoid the annual China-Taiwan diplomatic stoush. They can also dodge the lengthening queue of Dialogue Partners seeking bilateral meetings, a priority when Pacific presidents and prime ministers are all gathered in the same location at the same time! With Chile, Norway and Singapore all seeking Forum Dialogue status alongside the 18 existing partners, the Forum Secretariat was tasked in 2019 with developing criteria and guidelines for membership and participation by dialogue partners and observers.

On the road to Glasgow

Oh yes, and let’s not forget the climate emergency.

At the 2019 summit hosted by Tuvalu, the Forum retreat dragged on long into the night. There was a lengthy, often angry, debate over climate policy between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and some island leaders, angered by Australia’s addiction to the mining and export of fossil fuels. After many hours, however, Forum leaders forged an uneasy consensus dubbed the “Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now.”

Now Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe has thrown out the challenge to other Forum members: “Obviously Covid-19 has really taken up our attention and efforts in the past year. But Covid-19 is not an excuse for countries [to delay climate action]. That’s the message we’ll be carrying through to COP26.”

This week, the Kainaki II Declaration continues to provide a joint framework for cooperation in the lead up to the Glasgow COP and Forum Secretary General Henry Puna does not expect the same level of fireworks as 2019. A former Prime Minister himself, Puna seems to have a sympathetic understanding of the domestic pressures facing politicians like Scott Morrison.

“The fact is the Forum is comprised of so many members with different circumstances,” Puna said. “Size itself is also a major consideration. We need to be conscious at all times that those differences may take us in different directions. The reality in life and in politics is that we are accountable to our constituencies. There is no point in doing something, if you know that the result is you’ll be thrown out at the next election. I think patience and dialogue are the key when we are confronted by situations like this.”

Behind closed doors, however, other leaders will continue to be forthright about the lack of climate ambition by the Coalition government in Canberra. Australia’s next elections are due before May 2022, the mining industry has long captured climate policy-making and National party leader Barnaby Joyce, the new Deputy Prime Minister, says the biggest issue confronting Australia “is not COVID, it’s not climate change – it is China.”

After the delay caused by postponement of the 2020 climate negotiations, there is increased urgency to ramp up regional advocacy as the UK government hosts COP26 in Scotland next November. Pacific governments will be pushing to conclude negotiations of the rulebook to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Once again, they’ll seek increased global commitments to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, despite current emissions pathways heading above 3 degrees.

Last year, OECD countries failed to meet their climate finance pledge of US$100 billion per annum by 2020, so Forum Island countries will – once again – issue a strong call for rollout of more targeted, accessible funding for adaptation and mitigation, even during the pandemic.

Once again, the Pacific will also lobby for international support for the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage and support for public insurance, pre-disaster planning and new resources for SIDS and Least Developed Countries. After last month’s Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting, Australia’s Marise Payne reported: “We agreed to progress a Joint Statement on ‘Blue Pacific Leadership in Pre-Pandemic and Pre-Disaster Planning’, reflecting the importance of preparing for future disasters. I thank Tuvalu for its foresight in putting this proposal forward.”

Other initiatives focus on the UN Human Rights Council, integrating human rights and climate change (Australia, Marshall Islands and Fiji are currently UNHRC members, with Fiji’s ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan chairing the international body this year).

During this week’s summit, a key agenda item is how Forum leaders can carry their voice into this year’s global climate negotiations. Virtual negotiations can disadvantage island states with limited bandwidth and difficult time zones. But travelling to the other side of the world is a major logistic exercise in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. With current surges of the Delta strain in Fiji and Australia, passing through key transit hubs like Nadi, Brisbane and Sydney on the way to Glasgow will be a nightmare for many civil society and government delegates.

Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe worries that “to hop through a number of countries to get to the meeting is an enormous challenge. Given the situation we’re in right now, with countries in lock down and requiring exemptions or permissions to transit, it’s going to be a challenge.”

One challenge amongst many. As Forum host this week, Voreqe Bainimarama has a short time to address a long agenda – and faces an interesting year ahead!