This is our circus, these are our monkeys

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on February 3rd, 2017

There are lots of things that go on in the world that really are very little to do with us in the Pacific.

Quite often we have more important things to worry about in our own countries and region than what is happening on this or that global stage.

What is happening at the moment in the USA does not fall into this category. This is not about whether you wanted Hillary Clinton to win or whether you favour free market policies over Keynesian economics. Simply saying that Trump was democratically elected and the processes he is using are legal and then looking the other way is not acceptable. Apartheid was legal in South Africa, but we didn’t look the other way. We applied sanctions, we boycotted sporting events and we supported those who fought for what was right. According to the United Nations, Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua is legal but we in the Pacific do not look the other way and we call on other countries to stand with us to overturn a system based on injustice and oppression.

The importance of us knowing and understanding what is happening in the United States operates at several levels. It is naïve to think that the actions of President Trump and his team will not affect us here in the Pacific. The reintroduction of the ‘global gag’ rule will cut funding to organisations that provide sexual health services in our region, such as Marie Stopes International in Papua New Guinea. As Ashlee Betteridge & Camilla Burkot commented recently on the Devpolicy blog:

It’s difficult to describe the Global Gag Rule as anything other than a textbook case of terrible policy, even for those who are opposed to abortion. The Gag Rule does not prevent abortions from taking place, but instead drives them underground. More importantly, there is strong evidence that the number of abortions can be reduced by increasing access to effective contraception and comprehensive sex education. Perversely, the Gag Rule does the opposite, by cutting funding and putting pressure on organisations that deliver precisely these services. Reduced access to contraception also increases the risks of unplanned pregnancy and unsafe abortion, and thus maternal death.

And then there are the potential cuts to funding of international organisations. As Robin Davies argued earlier this week (also on Devpolicy) if US funding to international organisations is indeed cut by 40% (based on a draft executive order leaked to the New York Times), the likely targets are ones that are important to our part of the world. They include the Green Climate Fund, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and even the International Red Cross.

Beyond the ‘enlightened self-interest’ argument for why we need to pay attention to what is happening in Washington, there are other more fundamental reasons. Trump’s recent actions – most notably the ban on people entering the country on the basis of their religion and/or nationality – are undermining the principles on which his country was founded. His refusal to operate within the established state systems has already caused civil disquiet and this is likely to continue and possibly escalate. Among our American family members, friends and colleagues are people who are fearful, angry and overwrought. They may be looking around them feeling that their lives have been turned upside down – those who experienced Cyclone Pam in 2015 will know just how that feels.

Others have noted that the ban on entry of refugees and asylum seekers from some of the most dangerous places on our planet was enacted on a day set aside to commemorate the Holocaust, a global event that took place while so many looked the other way. Before we are Christians, Melanesians or Pacific Islanders, we are human beings and we must stand against actions that harm other human beings when and where we possibly can.

We have yet to hear from Pacific island leaders their thoughts about the actions of President Trump since he took office. Perhaps, like the Australian prime minister, they don’t feel it is their job to comment on how other national leaders behave. I invite them and all of us to look to which side of history we want to find ourselves on. This is not a matter of policy or geo-strategic manoeuvring. This is a matter of humanity and common decency. Be very clear – this IS our circus, these ARE our monkeys.


Pacific Predictions: what will 2017 hold for the Pacific?

This item was first published on Devpolicy on January 11th, 2017

Pacific politics will continue to be a source of fascination and concern in 2017. There will be general elections in Papua New Guinea (polling will take place between June 24th and July 8th). In addition to the ever-present concerns about money politics, logistics, cost and security, the economic crisis that country is currently experiencing will also contribute to the prevailing environment. It is always a matter of concern if governments cannot pay their bills and these concerns are exacerbated in election years. Jitteriness was increased recently, when the O’Neill government ‘delayed’ release of the IMF Article IV assessment, which has yet to appear. Another potential flashpoint is the failure (in both Waigani and Canberra) to appropriately resolve the situation in relation to the closure of the Manus refugee-processing centre. Recent violence should be seen as a serious warning as should the increasing frustration (seen most evidently on Twitter: @pontuna2run) of Ron Knight, the current MP for Manus province.

Fiji is scheduled to hold elections during 2018 but the pre-positioning that took place last year will continue during 2017. The major opposition party SODELPA has a ‘back to the future’ leader in former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka and he has called for opposition parties to work together in coalition to unseat the Fiji First government. The electoral system in Fiji militates against independents and, in an attempt to counter this, Roshika Deo (who contested unsuccessfully in 2014) is expected to form a new party to contest.

Further afield, there will be presidential elections in France. The results may have a ripple effect in our region in relation to the finalisation of the Noumea Accords process in New Caledonia and the participation of France in the Pacific Islands Forum, the details of which are yet to become clear.

Constitutional reform is a hot topic in several Pacific island countries. Vanuatu’s attempts to progress a whole raft of measures (largely designed to engender greater political stability) faltered in late 2016. This was because the Salwai government failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to progress legislation further to constitutional reform committee process. Whilst there are certainly elements within the government who will want to progress this if the opportunity arises, it is possible that other issues will become and remain more pressing. Chief among them is Vanuatu’s impending relegation to the Financial Action Task Force’s ‘black list’. The referendum on constitutional reform scheduled to take place concurrently with provincial elections in March is on indefinite hold.

To our north, the Republic of the Marshall Islands will hold its first Constitutional Convention once the 45-person membership has been established. The most significant item for consideration is a proposal to move from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government. Meanwhile, in Samoa, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi is seeking to have the Constitution amended to make the Samoan state Christian, a proposal that has caused concern within the wider society.

During 2016, I suggested that the new logo for the Melanesian Spearhead Group should be the Gordian knot. As we enter a new year, the internal tussles are becoming ever more entrenched. There are several strands to this knot with the issue of membership being the one that is proving the most stubborn to shift. Despite the fact that there was no leaders’ meeting in December, the foreign ministers met in Port Vila to consider the text of membership regulations and guidelines prepared by the group’s Subcommittee on Legal and Institutional Issues. In town at the same time was a large delegation of West Papuans including Benny Wenda and other key members of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua leadership. The MSG leaders’ meeting is now pencilled in for January, to be held in Port Moresby, prompting declarations of disappointment from within the ULMWP. It is hard to see the disappointment lifting any time soon given the proposal to hold the meeting in Papua New Guinea (the ULMWP would prefer that the meeting be held in Port Vila, where they have the most support from government and civil society) and the continuing non-appearance of Fiji’s prime minister at these gatherings – last month in Port Vila he was represented by Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, the former Foreign Minister and current Minister for Defence.

There are some indications that the current chair (Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of Solomon Islands) is looking to use the current impasse over membership as an opportunity to expand the grouping. In relation to activism around the West Papua issue, this is likely to be taken forward at global levels by the Pacific Coalition on West Papua, with Sogavare as its head. Australia has had two indications recently that its ‘nothing to do with us’ stance is wearing thin in Jakarta: the ‘request’ made to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne to caution the leadership of Pacific island countries to stop interference in relation to the West Papua issue and, more recently, the rupture in defence relationships.

More generally, Australia will prepare and publish its first white paper on foreign policy in 14 years, which will complement a new ‘Pacific strategy’ promised by the Prime Minister. We hope to see a detailed and nuanced approach to relationships with the Pacific island region feature prominently in this document. It presents an important opportunity to rectify previous missteps, build on what is working well and send important messages about where our region features in Australian policy thinking on diplomacy, trade, development assistance and, critically for the Pacific, labour mobility.

Tess’s past annual predictions can be found here: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 & 2016.

Photo credit: Flickr/GreensMPs


A reframed Pacific regionalism: rise of the foreign ministers

This item was first published on the Devpolicy blog and is co-authored with Matthew Dornan.

In a post last September, we examined the first year of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism in the aftermath of the Port Moresby Pacific Island Forum leaders’ meeting. This year the action was in the Federated States of Micronesia, where for the first time, non-independent territories (New Caledonia and French Polynesia) were granted full Forum membership status.

Another first which went largely unnoticed was the inaugural standing meeting of the Forum Foreign Ministers in August (the meeting last year was a one-off affair; as of this year it becomes an annual occurrence). The foreign ministers’ meeting now serves as an additional filter on proposals submitted as part of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. Whereas previously proposals were assessed by the Specialist Subcommittee on Regionalism (SSCR) tasked with reviewing regional public policy submissions and vetted by the Forum Officials Committee, they are now also considered (and vetted) by foreign ministers.

The prior meeting of foreign ministers appears to have influenced what was discussed (and not discussed) in the Forum leaders’ meeting. It may also have bolstered the influence of Australia and New Zealand given their foreign ministers’ interest in regional affairs.

Australia and New Zealand were vocal supporters of admitting New Caledonia and French Polynesia into the Forum, a move agreed by leaders despite the subject not having been raised through the SSCR process, opposition from pro-independence groups within those territories, and reports of unease among some Forum member states. Of course, the inclusion of the French territories also sits at odds with the original impetus for establishing the South Pacific Forum (as it was then known) in 1971. France at the time had prevented discussion of decolonisation and French nuclear testing in meetings of the South Pacific Commission. The Forum Communiqué announced this important development in one factual line — “Leaders accepted French Polynesia and New Caledonia as full Members of the Pacific Islands Forum” – in a possible indication of disagreement among some Forum members.

The decision to include the territories, although considered inevitable by some, in the immediate term looks a lot like a response to Bainimarama’s continued criticism of Australian and New Zealand membership of the Forum. The move provides an entry for another OECD country (beyond Australia and New Zealand) to influence Forum activities. It may not have been complete coincidence that events in Fiji overshadowed those of Forum over the weekend, with the removal of Fiji’s Foreign Minister from his position by Bainimarama mid-meeting (via email) followed by the concerning arrest of opposition and trade union leaders. Bainimarama will now take up the position of Foreign Minister himself.

Australian and New Zealand influence was also evident in other areas. The leaders’ communiqué’s positive spin on PACER Plus was especially striking. It made no reference to Vanuatu’s concerns about the agreement, nor to Fiji’s decision four days ago not to join the agreement (the communiqué did describe Fiji as having reservations regarding the text). However, it did confirm previous comments by PNG’s Minister for Trade that PNG would not sign up – a stance confirmed by O’Neill at the Forum.

The relegation of West Papua as an issue was also notable. We might have expected to see West Papua given more prominence in the communiqué, given the fact that of the 48 regional policy public submissions that were received, 13 concerned West Papua. Instead, last year’s measured statement announcing the establishment of an independent fact-finding mission looks positively assertive when compared to this year’s communiqué, which simply states that leaders “recognised the political sensitivities of the issue of West Papua (Papua) and agreed the issue of alleged human rights violations in West Papua (Papua) should remain on their agenda” (while also agreeing “on the importance of an open and constructive dialogue with Indonesia”). The influence of the larger Forum members was likely at play here, including that of Australia, New Zealand, PNG and Fiji.

What of other issues discussed by leaders?

A positive development was the increased assertiveness of the Small Island States (SIS) group, which now also includes FSM. The leaders of the Small Island States (SIS) met earlier in the year in Palau and agreed upon a five-point Regional Strategy [pdf]– a significant component of which involves preparation of joint applications for funding from the Global Climate Fund (GCF). Not only will this be the first such joint application that the GCF will have received, but it has the potential to inform future activities by the Forum.

Fisheries management was again on the agenda, having been discussed at last year’s leaders’ meeting. Leaders endorsed the work of the Fisheries Taskforce in implementing the Fisheries Roadmap agreed in 2015. Importantly, leaders supported the view of the taskforce that there need be no change to the Vessel Day Scheme. This had previously been the source of some concern within the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Secretariat. The call by leaders for an expanded focus on coastal fisheries is a positive development.

As occurred last year, the communiqué discussed the importance of climate change for Forum island members. Although bold, there was not a great deal that was new here. An exception was leaders’ agreement on a Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific [pdf], which aims to integrate the region’s climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction frameworks into one. This followed bungled efforts last year to do the same, which saw leaders reject a draft given opposition by some member states to the detail of that text. The voluntary nature of the framework agreed this year was no doubt helpful in securing leaders’ agreement. The framework has nevertheless been criticised for not doing enough to integrate adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

Widely reported in Australia was the PM’s announcement of $80m over three years for disaster response, which adds to the $300m over 4 years already announced for climate adaptation in the region. Although that figure sounds impressive, $75m per year ($300m over 4 years) is below that provided in 2013, 2012 or 2011 (in that last year, Australia provided just under $170m). It does nevertheless mark an improvement on the dismal $40m provided in 2014 (as discussed previously on this blog).

The communiqué’s reference to cervical cancer and ICT – two initiatives canvassed by leaders last year as part of the SSCR process – is especially notable. We criticised the proposals at the time for being vague; it was unclear what their regional dimension was. Read between the lines of this year’s communiqué and it would appear that leaders agree – they pointed out that, “while important, these issues do not require their continued discussion to be progressed”.

How does the 2016 Forum leaders’ meeting measure up? There was less potential for controversy than in 2015, when tensions over climate change between Australia (in particular) and New Zealand and Forum island members were prominent. Fewer leaders attended this year’s meeting (five Forum island leaders instead sent delegates). Leaders did discuss issues of importance for the Pacific, but the outcomes of those discussion were limited, with much of the communiqué repeating previous statements (with some notable exceptions, including on fisheries management).

In many ways this year’s outcome reflects the Framework for Pacific Regionalism’s success in attracting high level political engagement. Having very clearly set a political agenda for last year’s leaders’ meeting, the interjection of the foreign ministers this year would appear to have had a diluting effect in some areas, with the influence of Julie Bishop and Murray McCully evident on issues such as West Papua. Australian and New Zealand influence appears to have driven other decisions as well, including the status of the French territories. Whether such political engagement has the unintended effect of undermining future engagement with civil society through the SSCR process remains to be seen.


Green growth, activism & Pacific regionalism – in conversation with Fe’iloakitau Kaho Tevi

by Tess Newton Cain & Fe’iloakitau Kaho Tevi

This item was first published on Devpolicy on February 22nd, 2016

To reboot Pacific Conversations, Tess recently met with Fei Tevi over coffee in Port Vila. You can hear a podcast of their conversation here and read a transcript here. For the highlights of what they discussed, read on…

I started by asking Fei to fill us in on his background and participation to date in development in the Pacific. Fei is now based in Vanuatu as a result of his wife Eleni’s position at the Melanesian Spearhead Group. He is working as a consultant to the governments of Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, assisting them in developing sustainable development policies and brings with him a wealth of experience in diplomacy, international relations and civil society activism and advocacy.

I am trained in diplomacy and international relations. I worked for the churches for a number of years, over a decade, both in Geneva, Switzerland and also here in the Pacific … prior to that, I was with the Pacific Concerns Resource Center, which is the secretariat to the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement. Very formative years, ’96 to 2000.

During 2015, Fei participated in the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) in Suva and was also in Port Moresby for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting. So I was keen to find out what he thought the relative strengths and weaknesses are of those regional groupings. In relation to the Pacific Islands Forum, Fei was quick to acknowledge the leadership input of Dame Meg Taylor and said he was watching with interest to see what the further impacts of that would be. He then told me categorically that he thought the issue of West Papua would be critical for the Pacific Islands Forum in the future:

And so this is what I’m saying. The Forum itself, the issue will be a determining factor how they treat West Papua and how they are able to get the political support around the issue. And it won’t go away.

In relation to the PIDF, Fei felt that it had achieved a significant success in 2015 by providing a space for Pacific island leaders to caucus around key issues, especially a joint position for the COP 21 talks in Paris, ahead of the Forum meeting in Port Moresby:

But I think PIDF had a role to play in harnessing the collective momentum of the countries, to stand together and say, “Yes, this is what we need.” And not to be pulled apart … We had one meeting after the other, and people saying the same things and coming right through and holding their stance at the Forum, saying “This is what we want, and this is what you get.” Despite all the pressures, despite all the checkbook diplomacy, everything was up to try and get the Pacific island countries to shift and take position. And kudos to them.

And then he provided a very important statement to define the role and place of the PIDF; one that I feel has not been so clearly and explicitly articulated before now:

…we need to have clarity on what PIDF is. It’s a space. Maintaining that space is a very difficult challenge. Everybody wants to cloud that space, Fiji included. Everybody wants to get that space, monopolise that space. As long as we can keep that space as an opportunity for people to come and talk about issues or challenges, talk about opportunities, discuss deals, that will form the character of PIDF. It’s not a CROP agency. It will not deliver on water tanks and water and sanitation programs. It’s not geared towards that.

We then moved on to discuss the concept of ‘green growth’ in the Pacific context, which is an aspect of development with which Fei has been very involved in recent years. I began by asking him how he conceptualises the Pacific concept of green growth, given that it appears to be something that has yet to achieve one accepted definition globally:

In the work that we’ve been doing over the last 3-4 years, in the Pacific, green growth has to do with lifestyles; green growth has to do with a sustainable approach to development. Green growth has to do with—the maturity of the countries to determine where and how they want to address development.

He sees the Pacific conceptualisation of green growth as being one that goes beyond technological interventions. So, next, I asked Fei to give me some sense of what green growth means in a practical sense. How can it or should it influence the way Pacific island countries do business? He took as his starting point the resilience of the communities in Vanuatu further to the impacts of Cyclone Pam last year.

…that for me expresses a set of values that for me green growth encompasses … And that’s part of, I guess, a sense of maturity that we are going through. The recognition that there is something that we can learn and that the future of the region, in terms of green growth, it’s within us. We need to find the tools to identify this and to identify those components of what we can achieve. So that’s one example we can quote. Examples of which time and time again, the resilient nature of these communities has expressed itself with or without help or foreign assistance. So we need to think about that. We need to think how that defines, how that defines growth for us.

Drawing on Fei’s longstanding and extensive involvement with civil society activism in our region, I asked him how he assessed the current capacity within that sector to influence national and regional decision-making about the important issues that we face. He reflected on the changing nature of activism in the region, which he felt had been blunted as a result of becoming ‘institutionalised’ in the 1990s. However, more recently, he had seen resurgence particularly around the issues of self-determination for West Papua and climate change activism:

You have the new environmental activists that are coming through, the young Solwarans, the Young Solwara movement, the Wan Solwara movement, the other groups that have— … PICAN, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network. These are all young, new activists that are coming through.

I expressed a concern that a weakness for civil society at present in our region is a lack of access to and influence with governments. Fei was quite clear that governments in the region should do much more to include civil society in relevant discussions and policy formulation:

… I think we cannot point five of our fingers at civil society. I think there’s a lot of responsibility also that governments have to take on in terms of how they deal with civil society… there has to be a revisiting of what civil service means, and being a civil servant. You are a servant of the government, and by government means the people. So you serve the people. It’s not the other way around. The people don’t come in on their knees to come and ask for service. They shouldn’t. Citizens, rightfully, ask and request their assistance, and their service. Then I think there needs to be a give and take in this discussion.

Finally, we discussed the impact of the election of ‘Akilisi Pohiva as prime minister of Tonga and what it means for democracy in that country. He was quick to acknowledge that the early months have proved disappointing in some ways:

I think in the longer run, in the medium to long term, I think there’s a lot of benefit that can accrue from ‘Akilisi and his time, and his government being in place. I think there’s a lot of lessons that can be taken from the first year or so of ‘Akilisi’s government. A lot of questionable decisions.

He then went on to make a very interesting observation in relation to what we can expect from Tonga in terms of regional participation:

There is more good than bad—there’s more strengths than weaknesses that’s coming out of this government. The fact that, you know, Tonga has taken a strong stance on the issue of West Papua is a token of that and you will see, you will see this government taking on regional issues in a much more stronger way than in the past. The first year has been about consolidating and shifting the country at the national level. I think you will see Tonga playing a more influential role in the region in the future.

…something to look forward to, for sure.

Fe’iloakitau Kaho Tevi is a consultant to the governments of Solomon Islands and Vanuatu on sustainable development policies, and has experience in diplomacy, international relations and civil society activism and advocacy.


The Post Moresby Forum: a reframed Pacific regionalism


This item was first published by Matthew Dornan & Tess Newton Cain on Devpolicy on September 30th, 2015

The political machinations of the recent meeting of Pacific Islands Forum Leaders dominated the media headlines over the last two weeks, with tensions around climate change and West Papua, as well as the future of Australia and New Zealand in the Forum, receiving considerable coverage.

A number of other important developments were sidelined in the media commentary as a result, including leaders’ decisions on three other agenda items: cervical cancer treatment, fisheries management, and ICT development. Importantly, the impact of the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism [pdf] on proceedings prior to and at the meeting has received scant attention, as has the Hiri Declaration. These are the focus of this post.
It surprised many the extent to which the Framework for Pacific Regionalism (the framework) flew under the radar at the leaders’ meeting in Port Moresby: the first time the framework has been in place. Although the framework itself did not receive much attention, it was its operation that created the agenda for what was discussed in Port Moresby.

The framework was developed as a result of the Review of the Pacific Plan in 2013, and aims to better focus PIF Leaders’ meetings by reducing the number of issues placed on the agenda for discussion. Its establishment, socialisation and implementation has been the paradigm for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat under the new leadership of its Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor, and it is an agenda that she and her team have pursued with vigour. It is worth discussing the framework in some detail, given its implications for the outcomes of both the recent and future leaders’ meetings.

Three key objectives provide the underpinning of the framework:

  • to broaden the conversation on regionalism beyond that of CROP agencies, which were (often correctly) perceived to dominate priorities under the Pacific Plan.
  • to ensure regional initiatives had a sound rationale, something sometimes lacking in the past.
  • to ‘bring back’ the political dimension of regionalism, which many argued had been lost under the technocratic Pacific Plan.

This last point was emphasised in the opening remarks of Dame Meg Taylor to the Forum Officials Committee meeting, which preceded the leaders’ meeting. In her statement, Dame Meg Taylor stated:

“I reiterate the responsibility of this Committee, as articulated in the Framework and approved by Leaders, to ensure that ‘politically sensitive and major regional issues and initiatives are the focus of the Leaders’ meeting’.”

The operation of the framework has been both devised and rolled out since Dame Meg Taylor took over as Secretary-General. One of the most significant planks of its implementation is to provide an opportunity for a wider range of voices (whether individual or institutional) to contribute to determining how the regionalism project should be taken forward. Under the framework, the Forum Secretariat issued a call for public submissions of proposed regional initiatives in the lead up to the leaders’ meeting.
These were assessed by a newly appointed Specialist Sub-Committee on Regionalism (SSCR), and five were selected for the consideration of leaders, on the basis of a series of tests. These tests ensure that proposals considered by leaders are requiring of a regional approach, generate net benefits, and do not impinge on sovereignty, the market, or duplicate existing activities. The SSCR process is key to the new framework, and is important to meeting all three underpinning objectives identified above.

What was its impact in preparation for the leaders’ meeting and in Port Moresby?

The SSCR process has been successful in broadening the conversation on regionalism this year. The process has generated considerable public interest, more than was expected, with a total of 68 submissions received from NGOs, regional bodies, universities, CROP agencies, and Forum member country governments. The SSCR referred a number of these to appropriate ministerial meetings for decisions as envisaged by the framework, again as a way of ensuring that the leaders’ discussions were focused on only those issues that would be in line with the underpinning objectives. (These were a joint position on climate change, West Papua, a regional response to cervical cancer, better fisheries management, and ICT development).

Assessment of these proposals against the various tests was designed to ensure that proposals had a clear rationale. It is hard to judge the impact of these tests as the basis for the SSCR’s decision on the five proposals presented to leaders were not made public (although the Secretariat has published the template [pdf] that was used to review submissions prior to their consideration by the SSCR). Indeed, very little detail was provided about what was actually placed on the agenda of leaders. This has detracted from achievement of the first aim, and is discussed more below.

The third objective, to ‘bring back’ the political dimension of regionalism, was certainly achieved at the recent Forum Leaders’ meeting. This was in part due to the SSCR process, which both selected topical issues and limited leaders’ discussion to five agenda items, thereby facilitating discussion (To put this in perspective, the communiqué [pdf] from last year’s meeting reflects a much more unwieldy agenda). However, the context within which the meeting took place, in the lead up to the UNFCCC negotiations, was no doubt also a factor.

So, what should we make of the meeting? And what was the impact of the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism?

There can be no doubt that the leaders’ meeting focused on matters of political importance. (In turn, the Hiri Declaration replaces the 2004 Auckland Declaration as the basis for political support for the regional project, and includes specific mention of the Pacific Islands Forum and the Framework for Pacific Regionalism.)

Somewhat ironically, it was the very success of the framework in ‘bringing back’ politics that highlighted differences between Forum member states on key issues. This was most evident in the rift between Australia/New Zealand and Forum island countries on climate change. But it was also evident on West Papua, with countries like PNG opposed to the more assertive recommendations of countries like Solomon Islands. (It is worth noting that some other potential subjects for discussion that are equally controversial were not included in the agenda, such as the worrying political developments in Nauru).

The other agenda items discussed by leaders were less controversial. One suspects that some, such as the cervical cancer initiative, were selected at least in part due to their potential for implementation. But agreement on specific actions in these areas was required for these initiatives to be considered a positive outcome at Port Moresby. The only area where this occurred was fisheries management.

On the issues of both ICT and cervical cancer the Forum Leaders’ communiqué was vague. The reasons for this are difficult to establish, given that the background material provided to leaders is not publicly available. It is possible that not enough effort was made in preparing detailed proposals for leaders. The fisheries proposal was different in this respect, as a plan had already been developed by fisheries agencies and required only approval by leaders. An alternative explanation is that a conscious decision was made to keep the subject matter general, in order to first gain leadership approval to develop proposals. In either case, it was a mistake not to develop detailed proposals for the initiatives, given longstanding criticisms of regionalism as not sufficiently action-oriented.

The framework worked well in other areas. Observers at the meeting have told us that the discussion was more substantive than in previous years, in which the agenda had been too crowded. The framework also attracted the interest of the public, reflecting a continuation of the high level of public engagement observed during the review of the Pacific Plan in 2013. This will help to addresses past concerns about ‘capture’ of regionalism by CROP agencies. The first ever meeting of civil society organisations with the Troika (the current PIF chair, outgoing PIF chair and incoming PIF chair) also addressed such concerns. Previous claims that the Forum excludes civil society (unlike the Fiji-sponsored Pacific Islands Development Forum) are now hard to justify as a result.

There is room for improvement in this area, however. Despite the public submission process, there was a lack of transparency with respect to what was discussed. Civil society organisations that attended the meeting were provided with a list of broad themes for discussion, but not the actual proposals considered by leaders. It remains unclear on what basis the SSCR made its decision to select the five agenda items for leaders (no documentation has been released). The process could therefore be improved, and hopefully will be in the future.

In our view, therefore, the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism went some way in achieving its objectives, notwithstanding the weak communiqué and political tensions surrounding the Forum Leaders’ meeting. The framework has made conversations about regionalism more inclusive, although there is room for improvement. It may have improved the process for consideration of regional proposals, although the lack of transparency highlighted above makes this difficult to judge. Again, there is considerable room for improvement in this space.

Most significantly, the framework recognises the reality that regionalism is inherently political. This is a positive, given the problems associated with the technocratic Pacific Plan. A more political approach will help to ensure that future strengthening of the regional architecture has a more solid foundation. However, this does not mean that strengthening regionalism will be any easier. The tensions observed at Port Moresby were a stark reminder of this.

Photo credit: Flickr/Raymond June


A tale of two forums

This item was first published by Tess Newton Cain & Matthew Dornan on Devpolicy on September 11th, 2015

‘Forum fortnight’ has ended with the release of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ communiqué this afternoon. It has been an important fortnight for Pacific regionalism. The Forum Leaders’ meeting was preceded by the Fiji-sponsored Pacific Islands Development Forum last week, and by the first ever pre-Forum meeting of leaders from the seven Smaller Island States on Tuesday.

The 46th meeting of Pacific Island Forum Leaders was special for a number of reasons. It was the first to be held where priority issues for consideration by Leaders were identified using the new processes available under the Framework for Pacific Regionalism, which replaces the old Pacific Plan (and will be discussed in a separate blog post). This year also sees the first time in three years that an Australian prime minister has attended the PIF meeting.

Significantly, this year’s meeting was held in the lead up to the UNFCCC climate change negotiations in Paris, and in an environment of considerable frustration among island states at Australia and New Zealand’s limited action on climate change. This frustration has served to bolster Fijian calls for the two ‘big brothers’ to be excluded from future meetings (see discussion of this herehere and here). Fiji’s Prime Minister refused to attend as a result, instead sending his Foreign Minister.

But criticism of Australia and New Zealand went beyond that of Fiji. The President of Kiribati, in the lead-up to the meeting, stated bluntly:

“Those of us who feel that our interests have been compromised — should we stay in or should we walk out? … Or should we ask those that have a problem with (what is) our bottom line to dissociate themselves?”

Strong statements on climate change emanating from regional fora that exclude Australia, such as the Polynesian Leaders Group Taputapuatea Declaration on Climate Change [pdf], and the Pacific Islands Development Forum’s Suva Declaration on Climate Change, have helped solidify such positions. Indeed, Greg Fry argued last week that a weak Forum statement on climate change risked creating the perception:

“that a Pacific Islands Forum with Australia and New Zealand as members is hampering the ability of the Pacific island states to defend their interests, and in the case of climate policy, their very survival.”

But this was not just an important fortnight for the Pacific Islands Forum.

The 3rd meeting of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), which took as its theme ‘Building Climate Resilient Green-Blue Pacific Economies’, was described by one insider as evidence that PIDF is here to stay. Indeed, specific mention of the PIDF’s Suva Declaration on Climate Change in the Forum Leaders’ communiqué suggests that the PIDF has graduated from a potential organisation to an organisation with potential.

There are also other changes that point to PIDF’s consolidation as an organisation. A new Secretary-General was appointed. Francois Martel is a Samoan-Canadian who comes with an established background in conservation, bio-diversity and natural resource management; a profile that fits well with the avowed focus of PIDF on ‘green growth’ and the ‘blue-green economy’. The PIDF charter [pdf] was also approved.

All of these developments were eclipsed (in terms of media coverage and commentary) by the promulgation of the PIDF Suva Declaration on Climate Change [pdf]. The Declaration calls for a joint Pacific position prior to the Paris talks at the end of the year; a position that demands a global commitment to keeping warming ‘well below’ 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

These developments have helped to bolster PIDF as a regional forum, in the face of a widespread view that it is an organisation dominated by Fiji. They have also enabled Fiji’s Prime Minister to highlight again (and again) that the region’s most significant development partners – Australia and New Zealand – are not only not on the same page when it comes to climate change, they are in fact singing from a different songbook altogether. This was expressed in characteristically blunt language back in May:

“Rather than side with us, Australia in particular is siding with what I call the coalition of the selfish, those industrialised nations which are putting the welfare of their carbon-polluting industries and their workers before our welfare and survival as Pacific islanders.”

The PIDF meeting last week therefore set the scene for a tense 46th meeting of Pacific Island Forum Leaders on Thursday.

Of the five priorities discussed by Leaders (and identified through the new processes established by the Framework for Pacific Regionalism [pdf]), two came to dominate the media coverage and commentary. Both of these issues were ones where the leaders of small island states were not necessarily looking for technical assistance or even financing from the larger metropolitan members; rather they were looking for political solidarity. They were 1) a unified position on a call for a global warming target of no more than 1.5 degrees be adopted at the Paris talks, and 2) a regional response to ongoing allegations of human rights abuses in West Papua.

The momentum generated at PIDF on climate change by virtue of the Suva Declaration was maintained at the closed session of the Smaller Island States and subsequently via some trenchant comments from President Anote Tong of Kiribati. Once again, the question of whether Australia and New Zealand’s membership of the PIF could be maintained in the absence of their commitment to ‘stand with the Pacific’ was raised.

The issue of a regional response to the West Papua issue figured highly in the pre-Forum civil society dialogue, which included a breakfast with the troika (past, current and incoming Forum chairs) and was taken up forcefully by the delegation of Solomon Islands, including that government’s Special Envoy, Matthew Wale.

The PIF communiqué reflects what was evidently a long and possibly challenging day at the Leaders’ retreat, and will be a source of disappointment to many. The commitments to better regional management of fisheries resources are the strongest, reflecting what we learned about the factors that promote success to pooled service delivery (see our full paper on this here). Elsewhere, there are painful reminders of longstanding criticisms that the Forum is insufficiently action-focused and does not engender sufficient accountability on the part of Leaders or CROP agencies. One such example is the Leaders’ communiqué on ICT:

“Leaders tasked the Forum Secretariat and USP to consider the merit of a regional ICT Advisory Council. The Council should not overlap with existing mechanisms and must deliver real deliverables.”

The two most contentious issues are where the bulk of the disappointment will arise. And certainly, if we focus on the product rather than the process, there is plenty for Pacific islanders to feel underwhelmed by. The Pacific Island Forum Leaders’ Declaration on Climate Change Action was clearly a compromise, and was not as forceful as the PIDF’s Suva Declaration or the Port Moresby Declaration of Smaller Island States. It did highlight the harm to small Pacific island states associated with warming of over 1.5 degrees, but its call for action referenced the UN target of 2 degrees.

The level of commitment to progressing the cause of the people of West Papua is less inspiring, with Leaders tasking the Forum Chair (PNG) to convey their concerns about alleged human rights abuses to the government of Indonesia and to consult with them on a fact finding mission. This is far from what was hoped for by the many civil society groups throughout the region who had lobbied their leaders on this issue. Papua New Guinea’s ban on West Papuan attendance at the Forum Leader’s meeting was further evidence of its unwillingness to challenge Indonesia on the issue (the West Papuan leader, Octovanius Mote, was also ‘quietly’ asked to leave the PIDF meeting the previous week).

There are reasons to be positive. One is that the Forum Leaders’ meeting actually addressed issues such as climate change and the West Papua, issues that have long been neglected. Furthermore, the compromise arrived at in relation to climate change allows for those leaders (such as President Tong of Kiribati) who want to be more vocal and activist in the lead up to the Paris talks to be so without appearing to contradict themselves.

Importantly, the Declaration references other key agreements such as the Suva Declaration discussed above. This indicates a growing recognition and acceptance of the ‘patchwork’ of regional and sub-regional groupings that exists in the Pacific; a positive step, that reflects the reality of this diverse region. (This will be discussed in another blog post focused on the Hiri Declaration and how the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism fared at the Leaders’ meeting.)

The 46th meeting of Pacific Island Forum Leaders in Port Moresby is unlikely to be remembered as the turning point for a resurgent Pacific Islands Forum. The outcome will underwhelm many observers in the region. But there are some positives to be taken from the meeting. Forum advocates, while not celebrating, are likely to be breathing a sigh of relief. The outcome could have been worse given the division among PIF members on climate change.


MSG manoeuvres: What next for West Papua?

This item was first published on The Interpreter on 16th July 2014

It hasn’t taken long for the West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL) and other pro-independence groups to to respond to Melanesian Spearhead Group’s (MSG) recent announcement on the WPNCL’s membership application, made during the MSG summit in Port Moresby. And the response can be characterised as something of a ‘good news, bad news’ story.

The good news was that the WPNCL, with strong support from Marcus Haluk (Chairman for the Working Group of the all West Papua pro-independence organisations), announced that a conference of reconciliation would be held in Port Vila, Vanuatu at the end of  August.

The aim of this meeting is to put forward an application for membership of the MSG (here’s a primer on the Melanesian Spearhead  Group) by an umbrella group of all West Papuan people, as recommended by the MSG leaders in Port Moresby. The conference organisers have expressed their confidence that this new application will be ready by the end of the year.

The conference is being supported by the Vanuatu Council of Churches, the National Council of Chiefs and the government of Vanuatu. The conference chair is Pastor Alain Nafuki, who has already expressed his hope that the government of Indonesia will assist in facilitating the travel of delegates from West Papua to Port Vila. (This may be something of a vain hope as, despite what others may say about the importance of West Papua to Indonesia’s ‘Look East’ policy overall, there is no evidence to suggest that Jakarta will be a willing contributor to a pro-independence convocation being held in another country.)

The bad news is that hard on the heels of this announcement came the news that pro-Indonesia West Papua Autonomy campaigners, Franz Albert Joku and Nicholas Simion Messet, would not be invited to said conference.

This is not surprising, given the longstanding antipathy felt towards pro-Indonesia Melanesians by those who have advocated, lobbied and fought for the independence of West Papua for more than 50 years. However, this decision means the  conference may fail to meet the criteria contained in the Port Moresby communiqué, which states that MSG leaders…

Agreed to invite all groups to form an inclusive and united umbrella group in consultation with Indonesia to work on submitting a fresh application…(Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile, the government of Vanuatu has stated its intention to continue its lobbying for the self-determination of the people of West Papua through UN processes. Despite having accepted the group-think in Port Moresby, the Natuman government is maintaining the stance that sets Vanuatu apart from the other sovereign state members of the MSG.

Of course, Vanuatu has little to lose , as it no longer has a defence cooperation relationship with Indonesia and there is nowhere near the level of Indonesian investment in Vanuatu as is the case in other MSG countries, notably Fiji and PNG. And, perhaps more significantly, Vanuatu does not have PNG’s  financial resources to influence fellow members through provision of development assistance. Nonetheless, Vanuatu got the West Papua issue on to the agenda of the MSG and will undoubtedly do everything to ensure it remains there for as long as is needed or can be sustained.

Photo credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller


Melanesian leaders meet on West Papua

This item was first published on The Interpreter on 27th June 2014

There is a lot going on in Port Moresby just now. People are protesting on the streets (or trying to), court cases are being adjourned, anti-corruption task forces are being disbanded and formed, final preparations are being made for the fifth Melanesian Festival of Arts & Culture.

And in between, the leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group met yesterday for a special leaders’ summit (final communique here). Vanuatu’s prime minister Joe Natuman attended; his first foreign trip since taking office. He turned down an invitation from New Zealand soon after becoming PM, preferring instead to spend time with his constituents on Tanna, in the south of the country. Furthermore, neither he nor any of his government attended last week’s Pacific Islands Development Forum in Nadi. His participation in this week’s Moresby meeting fits with his ‘back to basics’ approach to government and its focus on the importance of cultural values. Solomon Islands’ prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo is also in attendance, as is Victor Tutugoro of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) in his capacity as chair.

Noticeable by his absence is the interim prime minister of Fiji, although his country has sent a  100+ contingent to the Melanesian Arts festival.

There are two items of particular interest on the leaders’ agenda. One is a paper relating to the appointment of the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. So maybe, contrary to what I said last week, the leaders will indeed come to an agreement on which of the three strong Melanesian candidates they will support for that position. That would appear to be the desire of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill of PNG. He has been meeting with Prime Minister Lilo of Solomon Islands in an attempt to consolidate support behind Dame Meg Taylor, PNG’s preferred candidate.

The second item is more contentious. The MSG leaders gave further consideration to the issue of membership for the  West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL), which was first raised in Noumea last year. The statement by Peter O’Neill (see clip above) conveys the consensus position after yesterday’s meeting. It betrays underlying divisions on this issue among the MSG membership.

Vanuatu is recognised as the country that is most vocal and steadfast in support of self-determination for West Papua. Both Solomon Islands and the FLNKS generally align with Vanuatu. But Fiji and PNG are more ambivalent.

The position put forward by Peter O’Neill does little to advance the cause of the WPNCL becoming an MSG member. In fact it may well set it back. O’Neill’s statement called for consultations with Indonesia, but the WPNCL is opposed to dialogue with the Indonesian Government. O’Neill also wants the application to be ‘representative of all Melanesians living in Indonesia’, though practically, the restrictions on access to West Papua will make it difficult for the WPNCL to come to a shared position with other pro-independence groups.

The fact that O’Neill is the one who made the statement (ostensibly in his position as co-chair) is a clear signal as to where the lead in MSG thinking is coming from.

Photo credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller