Pacific islands ramp up engagement with United Nations


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.