Pacific Islands Forum leaders met in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea last week. The meeting was highly anticipated for a few reasons. It is the first Forum hosted by PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who has clear regional leadership ambitions. PNG is celebrating 40 years of independence from Australia this week and hosted the Pacific Games in July. It is also preparing to host APEC in 2018, and needed to demonstrate its credentials in hosting regional meetings.

Leaders at the 46th Pacific Islands Forum, Post Moresby, Papua New Guinea (Facebook/Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat)

It was the first time the Fiji Government has been invited to attend the leaders’ summit since Fiji was suspended from the Forum in 2009. The now elected Prime Minister Bainimarama followed through on his promise to boycott the meeting, but was represented by his Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

The meeting was billed as an opportunity for Forum leaders to seek a common position to take to COP21 negotiations in Paris – 'seek' being the operative word.

In a break from past procedures and under the stewardship of new Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor, leaders had five priority issues on their agenda instead of the usual 35 or so they have previously been expected to discuss. Derived in part from public consulations, these issues were: fisheries and maritime surveillance, climate change and disaster risk management, West Papua, information and communications technology and cervical cancer.

Anyone expecting more succinct outcomes from a focus on five rather than 35 issues, however, would have been disappointed. The meeting produced a 41 paragraph communiqué and two annexes: an 11 paragraph Declaration  on Climate Change Action and a 21 paragraph Hiri Declaration, 'Strengthening connections to enhance Pacific regionalism'.

The reporting of the summit focused on the split between Australia/New Zealand and the island states on climate change. Neither Tony Abbott nor John Key agreed to the island states' demand for a position that would restrict global warming to 1.5 C°. This enabled leaders such as the Kiribati President Anote Tong and the Marshall Islands’ Foreign Minister Tony de Brum to join Fiji’s Prime Minister in portraying Australia and New Zealand as out of step with the region. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who made an insensitive joke about Pacific islands affected by climate change last Friday, reinforced that notion.

But there was much more to the discussion on climate change than reaching agreement on the temperature goal, which in itself offers no guarantees for a global agreement in Paris. The leaders did reach agreement on a number of significant issues that they would seek for inclusion in the outcome of the Paris negotiations. The language in the Declaration on Climate Change Action was as good as it could be given the attitudes of Australia and New Zealand, and presents a number of common substantial arguments Forum members can take to Paris. But the acrimony that spilled out from the Forum and Peter Dutton’s damaging intervention have already overshadowed the positive outcomes, and may constrain any further united action. 

The inability of the leaders to communicate effectively the totality of their position on climate change also obscured the fact that they botched discussion on three of the five issues on which they should have reached decisions.

On cervical cancer, leaders 'noted the substantial burden that cervical cancer places on women and girls in the Pacific region as well as the insufficient response to address it across the region' and put off any action until there was 'further consultation' with relevant authorities. Cervical cancer is one the most preventable cancers, yet kills nearly twice as many women in Melanesia as in Australia and New Zealand. For a disease that can be prevented in many cases by a vaccine and regular screening, this was a poor effort by the Forum.

The Pacific Islands region lags behind the rest of the world in access to and use of information and communication technology (ICT), which puts island states at further economic disadvantage in a world increasingly dependent on connectivity. Regional cooperation in this sector could deliver increased access and savings and more importantly education and employment opportunities for young people. All leaders could agree on, however, was asking the Forum Secretariat and USP to 'consider the merit of a regional ICT Advisory Council.'  In a statement Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud of, leaders instructed that such a Council (which may not ever even exist) 'must deliver real deliverables.'  

Forum leaders noted concerns about human rights in West Papua, but appeared to defer to PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill who has developed a strategy for dealing with the situation and wants to manage it himself.

On fisheries and maritime surveillance, leaders were bolder. They agreed that a joint task force of regional agencies with fishery responsibilities should lead a program to increase sustainable economic returns, and tasked ministers to evaluate regional monitoring, surveillance and compliance, with an emphasis on sharing technology. While not yet an outcome to celebrate, the value of fisheries to all island states cannot be underestimated and better regional cooperation could have real benefits.

Public divisions on climate change hurt all members of the Pacific Islands Forum. Island states need to work harder to have their voice heard internationally, and the reputation of Australia and New Zealand in the region is impaired. Just as troubling, though, these divisions obscure and jeopardise coordinated action on many other significant challenges the region faces. Leaders would better serve their people and build confidence in the region by acting cooperatively and decisively on issues they do agree on, rather than emphasising their differences.