Oct 18, 2017 Last Updated 12:43 AM, Oct 5, 2017

The harsh geographical realities and isolation of this region of islands nations have made regional development integration and cooperation a necessity. At the core lies our shared sovereignty—among us and with other players in today’s global village—and our shared ideals. Certain aspects of regional development are guided by the Pacific Plan document. In 2012, Pacific islands leaders issued the Waiheke Declaration on Sustainable Economic Development in Cook Islands. Among other things, the declaration marked the leaders’ recognition of sexual and reproductive health, maternal neo-natal child health, gender equality, youth and the elimination of violence against women as pertinent issues to be addressed.

The progeny of the Pacific Plan can be partially attributed to the economic theory of clubs— which boils down to the consolidation of assets for benefits that can be collectively enjoyed or “regionalism” in the Pacific context. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) relates well to this concept because it intimates that the Pacific bloc can advance in development together, in a self-sustaining way, to accommodate the realisation of widespread and multiple benefits.

While recognising that incountry programmes are vital for development results, the UNFPA Pacific Sub-Regional Office (PSRO) also utilises this regional platform. The organisation recognises the need for Pacific Islands countries to consolidate existing strengths in order to have their voices heard, as serious actors in the global arena.

An enabling environment and good governance are critical for regional efforts to contribute to national economic growth. While countries are at various stages of the demographic transition, the youth (people between 15 and 24 years) population number about two million, or a fifth of the region.

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The 44th meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), comprising the 13 islands nations (less suspended Fiji) plus Australia and New Zealand, will take place in Majuro, the capital of the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) next month. What should we expect from this annual jamboree of our leaders this year? The arrival of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, brought a lot of media attention to the Cook Islands at last year’s PIF. RMI, as the host for this year, deserves similar attention from the United States. I am certainly not expecting a repeat of the opening ceremony in Rarotonga of last year. It was appalling to see footage of our leaders being carried on the shoulders of Cook Islander men. Why our leaders accepted such an outrageous treatment is a mystery to me. Folks carrying their leaders would be pardonable if the Pacific islands region was basking in peace and prosperity. Reality is far from the above. Most of the islands nations of the Pacific are witnessing rising tides of poverty. A few are starring down the possibilities of conflict. The reality of a struggling region calls for a more sombre PIF this year.

Leadership: Leadership means service. Traditional village-leaders gain their positions of authority by serving their people. They are the first to stand up for their people and the last to sit atop the shoulders of their men. Many of our national leaders are doing a descent job, some in very trying circumstances. Most are honest, hardworking, and able-bodied men who have stepped up to the challenges of national leadership. So why do our leaders tolerate the pompous treatment repeatedly given to them at PIF meetings? Some will point out that it is part of the island-culture.

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Small groupings add great value

The emergence of smaller groupings within the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum states is not a sign of fragmentation, but one that adds great value to the regional organisation, so says the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS). The reassurance comes as Forum Islands Leaders, minus Fiji, prepare to travel to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, to attend the 44th Leaders’ Forum which begins September 3. Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama has been excluded from attending the annual meeting since he led his army to remove Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s Government in a bloodless coup on December 5, 2006.

The Suva-based regional body has also refused to be drawn into suggestions that the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) has grown into a powerful grouping in the Pacific, nor would it want to comment on the feeling that the newly formed Pacific Islands Development Forum that Fiji has created would undermine the workings of PIFS (Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat). It also accused the European Commission of being too slow in the negotiations for an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with 14 of the 16 Forum members, and rejected the commonly heard complaint that PIFS is heavily dominated by its two biggest and wealthiest members—Australia and New Zealand. Islands Business had sought answers to wide-ranging questions it sent to the office of the Secretary-General of PIFS, Tuiloma Neroni Slade on the eve of the Majuro Forum.

“The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is a grouping of 16 independent and self-governing states committed to coming together to discuss common concerns across a broad range of issues and to develop regional approaches to addressing these issues,” PIFS said in its written response to the magazine’s questions. “Similarly, smaller groupings such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the Polynesian Leaders Group and the Micronesian Leaders Summit have been established to enable their members to discuss issues of specific concern to them. “The Forum recognises the value of subregional groupings to address the particular issues arising from more closely neighbouring countries.

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No full compensation for victims

For 13 years, the Marshall Islands has patiently waited for the U.S. Congress to reply to a petition seeking more nuclear test compensation. The lack of a response prompted the nowretired Representative Gary Ackerman from New York City to criticize the U.S. government’s response to its nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands, saying: “We’re going to just wait for these people do die, right?”

Whether this lack of action on the nuclear compensation issue is a policy or simply indicative of its lack of unimportance to the U.S. Congress is not known. What is known is that not a single nuclear victim awarded compensation in the Marshall Islands has received 100 percent of their compensation award and most have died. What is remarkable about the situation is the unfairness of the compensation for Marshall Islanders when compared to the U.S. compensation program. In the U.S., the U.S. government compensates Americans whose highest average radiation dose is less than the lowest dose received by Marshall Islanders, but the majority of Marshall Islanders are not considered eligible for compensation and health care by the U.S. government.

In 1990, when the US Congress adopted the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), it appropriated US$100 million for compensation. From the time the law came into effect through August 2012, over sixteen thousand Downwinders received US$817,420,000 and over two thousand one hundred onsite participants at the Nevada Test Site received US$155,825,410. The Congress has repeatedly appropriated additional compensation to meet the claims of American citizens eligible under the RECA legislation. But in the Marshalls, the U.S. provided a US$150 million fund, now exhausted, and has refused to provide more, even though the U.S. tested about 100 times more megatonage in the Marshalls than in Nevada.

A key part of the equation, again ignored by U.S. government officialdom, is that all nuclear fallout exposure data was concealed by the United States during negotiation of the compensation agreement in 1982-1983, so Marshall Islands negotiators had no clue as to the extent of the fallout. Declassified nuclear test era reports now confirm fallout exposure was far broader than the four atolls acknowledged and compensated by the U.S. government. Simply put, the U.S. government by concealing this information from Marshall Islanders did not negotiate in good faith and the compensation deal reflects this fact. 

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We can’t afford to wait for global action: Muller

With a drought disaster in the northern islands from December last year and storm surges flooding parts of Majuro in late June, Marshall Islands officials believe they are getting a taste of the predicted future climate change today. “Climate change has become the number one threat to my country,” said Foreign Minister Phillip Muller in an article published in the Washington Post in June. To emphasize the point, the theme for the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Majuro next month is “Marshalling the Pacific Response to the Climate Challenge,” and the Marshalls is keen to see not only a strong statement issued by Forum leaders, but for Forum donor partners to ramp up implementation of climate funding pledges, which have generally been slow to materialize. Muller sees the Forum declaration as a means for the Pacific to deliver a unified appeal to a global summit on climate change that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is planning in 2014. “In the Pacific, we cannot afford to wait (for global action,” Muller said. “We want the September Forum to set the stage for a new, bolder approach. We will propose a Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership as a roadmap for tangible action in an effort to set aside the you-go-first dynamic that has stalled international climate talks. We call on not just governments but also intergovernmental organizations, the private sector and civil society to sign on to our declaration with their own measurable commitments aimed at averting a climate catastrophe.”

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