The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders' summit wrapped up in Majuro yesterday with few surprises. Highlights included the adoption of the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership and discussion on the importance of renewing regionalism. Fiji remains suspended from the Forum.
The bizarre decision by host the Marshall Islands and the Forum to convene the summit in the same week as the G20 leaders' summit and during the election campaign of its biggest and most influential member, Australia, guaranteed it would struggle to capture international attention.
This is important because the host government's ambition is for the Majuro Declaration to generate a 'new wave of climate leadership' that accelerates the reduction of carbon emissions. The Marshall Islands President will present the Declaration to the UN Secretary General later this month. But the initiative would have benefited both from international media attention (denied by the focus on the G20 summit) and from Australia taking a leadership role in championing it (denied by the Australian election campaign).
The Australian Government's decision to send Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Senator Jacinta Collins, who has no Pacific experience, to represent the Prime Minister was a clear signal that Australia would not be saying much at this Forum. Given the likelihood that Canberra's perspective on climate change will be quite different next week, the Forum might find itself in the awkward position of needing to convince its most influential member of the merits of its major 2013 resolution.
In predictable language on Fiji, leaders noted the progress Fiji was making towards holding national elections, and welcomed the new constitution. They looked forward to revisiting Fiji's suspension from the Forum next year.
Leaders missed an opportunity here. They could have agreed to telegraph that they would convene their summit in Palau after the September 2014 Fiji elections so as to invite the newly elected Fiji leader to participate as a guest if the conduct of the elections was satisfactory. As it is, Fiji is unlikely to be invited back until 2015.
But the safe route might have been the right one as it is by no means certain that Fiji even wants to return to the fold of the Forum or would see an invitation as any sort of incentive. If Commodore Bainimarama is the prime minister following the elections, which seems likely, he may decline an invitation to return or may seek to impose his own terms for the Fiji's return.
Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, chair of the Pacific Plan review, delivered some hard-hitting messages on the need for leaders to step up and act collectively for the 'betterment of the region and its peoples' with a 'New Framework for Pacific Integration'. In language that must have seemed startling to some leaders, Morauta told them regionalism had lost its political direction and said the solution lay in re-establishing a 'robust political process around regionalism' as opposed to a 'technocratic shopping list' of priorities. This would mean significant reform of the PIF and its Secretariat and political intervention to ensure the credibility of the New Framework through visible wins from regional integration.
Leaders welcomed Morauta's preliminary findings, but as the final report of the review will not be complete until October 2013, they tasked the Forum Officials Committee to report to them on the Review in a Special Leaders' Retreat six months later. The review's eventual recommendations have the potential to pose a real test for Forum leaders, who are practised at making noble statements in communiqués but less skilled as a group at directing and staying the course in the implementation of reform.
On the tenth anniversary of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, leaders recognised the transition of the mission to a policing one and the shift of development initiatives back to bilateral programs. Leaders also supported the Marshall Islands in its efforts to engage the US towards a justified resolution of America's nuclear testing program. Marshall Islands will consider submitting a letter to the US Government urging the US to take action to 'meaningfully address the ongoing impacts resulting from the US nuclear testing program' and make representations to the UN Secretary General.
After suspending consideration of new Post-Forum Dialogue partners for many years, leaders this year agreed to admit Cuba as a Dialogue partner, perhaps in acknowledgement of increased Cuban development assistance in the health sector.
I argued last week that this summit offered an opportunity for PNG's Prime Minister to claim the regional leadership mantle. He did a fair job of making good on this, announcing what he called a substantial aid program to the Pacific region. PNG is providing new aid to Tuvalu (US$2 million), Tonga and the Marshall Islands, in addition to the US$20.8 million for Fiji's elections and disaster aid to Samoa already announced. O'Neill committed to being an active member of the region.
The outcomes of this Pacific Islands Forum – most importantly the Majuro Declaration initiative, a (postponed) new commitment to regional integration, and a stepping up by PNG – have the potential to be substantial. But if the Forum is to avoid perceptions of a slide towards irrelevancy, its leaders now need to lead and personally champion reform and advocacy. Turning responsibilities over to the region's technocrats between leadership forums will no longer cut it.
Photo by Flickr user Christopher.Michel.