The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) has evolved substantially from its low-key inception way back in 1988, reaching 35 years of existence this year on the 14th of March. From its humble beginnings as a pressure group voicing the concerns of Melanesian countries at the Pacific Islands Forum, to forming a registered sub-regional organisation, that is now recognised beyond the region and internationally, the Group has certainly come a long way.
Described as an opportune occasion for the people of Melanesia to celebrate their efforts in cooperation and collaboration through the MSG, current Chairman and Vanuatu Prime Minister, Hon. Ishmael Kalsakau, says the Group has provided the critical mass needed to advance regional issues, not only within the Pacific Islands Forum but also at international meetings. This, he said, has in turn contributed towards the framing of MSG positions on regional and international issues such as climate change. As well, MSG has taken on leadership roles in advocacy at multilateral meetings.
It is a moment to pay special tribute to MSG’s past Leaders, some of whom have already left us, for their steadfast resolve, unwavering commitment and dedication to the noble objectives of cooperation within the MSG.
MSG has withstood the tests of time and even after being slapped with the COVID-19 pandemic which sent businesses struggling and forcing organisations to re-prioritise their goals to ensure survival, the MSG along with its Vanuatu-based Secretariat, emerged stronger but now with even more vigor and renewed vitality.
To date, MSG is the only sub-regional group in the Pacific that has a working trade in goods agreement amongst its members, now being enhanced to a new Melanesia Free Trade Agreement (MFTA).
MSG was in the forefront of anti-nuclear testing efforts at the Pacific Islands Forum meetings, to bring about the Nuclear Free Pacific as embodied in the Treaty of Rarotonga, that came into force in December 1986.
While MSG is the only sub-regional organisation that has a Secretariat, our Leaders have also approved the Skills Movement Scheme to facilitate employment of our people across MSG borders. The scheme is now embedded in the MFTA.
MSG Members continue to offer educational and training assistance to each other and MSG companies are increasingly investing within our region with the likes of Vodafone, Credit Corporation, Punjas and Prouds, to name a few.
Additionally, the MSG sub-region is the only one that has a Treaty on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture; a Treaty on Reciprocal Enforcement of Foreign Judgements; and a Treaty on Custody and Maintenance of Children.
Last year, with Vanuatu successfully hosting the MSG Prime Minister’s Cup, MSG sporting contacts were given a huge boost. MSG’s cultural flagship event, the Melanesian Arts & Culture Festival or MACFEST, will be held for the seventh time later this year in Vanuatu. The last one was held in Honiara, Solomon Islands.
As aptly put by the Director General of the MSG Secretariat, Leonard Louma, OBE, MSG has a proud history of enterprise; pushing through issues in our region that appear too difficult for others, including Vanuatu’s noble initiatives – the ICJ initiative on climate change responsibility and the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Fossil Fuel.
Another significant achievement of MSG’s cooperation efforts is the successful inscription of New Caledonia on the decolonisation list in the United Nations, in 1986 – a clear testament of the MSG’s cooperation and resolve.
To date, MSG continues to provide a platform for advocating and supporting the right to Self- Determination of the people of Kanaky recognised under the United Nations (UN) Charter.
Melanesian cooperation was initially played out in Vanuatu in the early 80s and seeds of solidarity were planted in the midst of her struggle for Independence. It is said that following the Santo revolt, the partnership between PNG and Vanuatu, leading to the latter’s Independence, influenced the two leaders’, Sir Julius, then PM of PNG and Father Walter Lini, Vanuatu’s founding Father, travel to Honiara to discuss avenues for more enhanced cooperation between PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with PM Peter Kenilorea. While these three countries became the founding members of MSG, New Caledonia’s Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) co-opted as a member and Fiji joined in 1996.
The notion of cooperation amongst PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu then led to the historic resolution of the inaugural MSG Leaders meeting in Goroka, PNG on 17 July 1986. Consensus was reached in this meeting culminating in the birth of the MSG together with FLNKS. The MSG served as a platform for taking a common stand when advocating for the rights and interest of the people of Melanesia.
Vanuatu may have been the youngest sovereign member amongst the other two members but she maintained a critical role in MSG matters when the signing of the Agreed Principles of Cooperation was held in Port Vila, on 14 March 1988.
This official signing formally allowed MSG to be recognised as a subregional group for the first time. In 2007, the Agreement Establishing the MSG was also signed in Port Vila by our Leaders hence setting their vision for a secure, prosperous and resilient Melanesia. The MSG was established under Article 2 of the Agreement, to promote and strengthen inter-membership trade, exchange of Melanesian cultures, traditions and values, sovereign equality, economic and technical cooperation between States, and the alignment of policies in order to further MSG members’ shared goals of economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security.
In 2010, the Agreement was registered with the UN while Vanuatu’s leadership in the MSG saw it organise for the establishment of a Secretariat, on behalf of the other Members. This move would enable the coordination and better implementation of decisions by MSG Leaders. In 2008, the MSG Secretariat building was formally opened, and proudly hosted by Vanuatu in Port Vila.
It is now 35 years since our founding fathers took that leap of faith to establish the MSG.
During the formation of the MSG, many skeptics were cynical about the Group’s reasoning and vision. Some questioned its relevance. Others mocked the idea of such a platform and had no qualms that this sub-regional association would only fragment regional cooperation as opposed to building it.
Indeed 35 years on and MSG has proven them wrong. Our leaders deserve the credit for their God-given wisdom and foresight.
Says Hon. Kalsakau, “MSG is still viable and we are still forging ahead with the pursuit of our social, political, economic and security interests, underscoring our resoluteness, tenacity and resilience as Melanesian people”.
The achievements and milestones reached by the MSG is not bad for an organisation that many thought had little value when it was formed. As mentioned by DG Louma, there was no shortage of doubters as to whether MSG would be viable.
“While many cynics would want to have us believe otherwise, MSG has had its successes and remains relevant today in the midst of constant flux and change. Could we have done better? Yes! Have we failed in our Mission? Absolutely, NOT!”
DG Louma says, “Our efforts towards more enhanced MSG Regionalism, as espoused in the 2038 Prosperity for All Plan, is being pursued with deliberate urgency and focus”.
With the help of the European Union (EU), through the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), and the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) partners, the Secretariat is implementing the Strengthening Pacific Intra-Regional and International Trade (SPIRIT) and Pacific Regional Integration Support (PRISE) projects that seek to facilitate trade, improve our trade capacity and bolster the marketability of our products.
Hon. Kalsakau says sub-regionalism is no longer frowned upon but now regarded as a building block for stronger regional cooperation, as exemplified in the PIF regional architecture changes incorporated in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.
While the importance of sub-regional organisations as building blocks for a firm foundation to a stronger region cannot be over-emphasised, the MSG is not only a big player but plays a pivotal role in enhancing regionalism.
Vanuatu’s President H.E Nikenike Vurobaravu, an influential figure in the establishment of the MSG acknowledges the contribution of the MSG subregion, in advancing many regional initiatives across the broad spectrum of political, social and economic areas within the wider Pacific.
He adds that as a sub-regional organisation, MSG can complement and build on initiatives canvassed within the Blue Pacific Continent.
Indeed, the MSG is well placed in the region to contribute towards framing and influencing policy in terms of trade and security, among other issues.
H.E Vurobaravu summed it up when he said the foresight of our MSG Leaders to establish the MSG have been vindicated by the way the region has embraced sub-regionalism.
Based in Port Vila, Vanuatu, the Secretariat is the administrative arm of the organisation, established in 2008 to help coordinate implementation of joint activities emanating from the MSG Leaders decisions, and in fulfillment of the Mission described under the Agreement establishing the MSG.
Staff are currently unpacking the 2038 Prosperity for All Plan and the MSG Climate Finance Strategy to determine what can be implemented within available resources.
The MSG Forestry Baseline Study of 2016 is currently being reviewed and the MSG Inshore Fisheries Management and Sustainable Development Roadmap is being implemented.
Our Work Programme and Budget guides the implementation of the many decisions of our Leaders. The Secretariat is committed to finding the means to implement them and is already positioning itself to meet the challenges of our times.
MSG is the only sub-regional organization with its own Trade-in-goods Agreement that is functioning in the region and with PICTA and PACER plus yet to fully operate, its success has prompted other sub-regions in the Pacific to join.
MSG registered commercial entities are already cross-investing in our countries, emboldened by this MSG Trade Agreement, and assured that our Governments’ have embraced trade and investment liberalisation.
In Vanuatu for instance, this is manifested in the presence of BSP, Kramer Ascenco, Capital Insurance, Credit Corporation, Vodafone, Rania Investment, Colorite Printery, Punjas and Prouds to name a few, providing essential services and employment to our people.
Political & Security Affairs
With the growing unprecedented challenges to the security of our region, a Regional Security Strategy (RSS) is currently being put together by MSG’s senior officials following on from the vision of our Leaders in 2016, who saw the Strategy as a platform in which the region can collectively respond to security threats.
The MSG RSS is a plan that sets out strategic priorities including maintaining safe and secure borders and maritime domains; strengthening governance over cyber space in the MSG region; and enhancing institutional development and regional cooperation, to combat transnational crime in the region, among others.
While a wrap-up session is expected to convene in Fiji soon, it is crucial for the RSS Working Group to address these identified common security challenges, based on the MSG’s needs and common interests by contextualising the issues and responses against global, regional and national considerations.
Arts & Culture
Being the only subregion whose Leaders have signed and adopted the MSG “Treaty on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Cultures,” our unique traditions and culture is the ‘glue that holds us together.’
To further strengthen this connection, Vanuatu will proudly host the 7th Melanesian Arts and Culture Festival (MACFEST) in July this year.
While our traditions and cultures are diverse, they are the means in which Melanesians resolve their differences when all other dispute settlement measures have failed. This was evident most recently for the benefit of the wider Pacific family, through the return of our Micronesian brothers to the PIF-fold.
Youth & Sports
The words of the MSG Chair Hon. Kalsakau rings true today when he mentioned during the inaugural MSG Prime Minister’s Cup in Port Vila last year, that sports is a critical enabler of positive human development.
And indeed when we have an active, healthy, productive and stable youth population, it is a prerequisite to other developments.
The event theme, “Ignite the Spirit of Melanesia through Sports” was fitting as the entire region converged in Port Vila through their love for the sport.
The MSG Sports Committee, comprising senior sports officials from Member countries, is also discussing other sporting codes, to be organized, under similar arrangements. Additionally, similar discussions are being held on arrangements under the ambit of the bigger Melanesia Games, with a heavy focus on youth.
As stated by the MSG Chair, the Group must do more and there is no time to rest on our laurels.
“MSG is the largest grouping, by any measure, in the Pacific Islands Forum family. We must assert a leadership role in the Region and “spearhead” initiatives as our name suggests.”
There is indeed a lot that the Secretariat must meet during Vanuatu’s tenure as Chairman, including assisting Members bring to a closure many of the outstanding issues; implementing the main recommendations of the Implementation Strategy for the 2038 Prosperity for All Plan, bringing into operation the revised MFTA; promotion of the MSG Skills Movement Scheme; and the enactment of the Traditional Knowledge and Expression of Culture legislation, among others.
The Secretariat, he says, will need to focus on how best to channel assistance from our development partners to get our economies back to performing in a resilient and robust manner. Natural disasters, such as tropical cyclones, like the two which recently struck Vanuatu, flooding and earthquakes continue to occur in our part of the world, threatening and impacting on the welfare and livelihood of our people.
Furthermore, MSG must operationalise the humanitarian and emergency response arrangements agreed by MSG Leaders under the MSG HERCC concept.
He adds that in the face of ever increasing and emerging threats often resulting in open conflict, adversely affecting law and order situation in our countries, MSG must, as a matter of urgency, bring into force the MSG Formed Police Unit, which MSG Leaders have already approved.
“As we journey into the future, we must remain committed to stand in solidarity and in unity to forge meaningful pathways forward for the benefit of all our people and where no-one is left behind,” says MSG Chair, Hon. Kalsakau.