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‘Marginalising our own brothers and sisters’: the disrespect Micronesia has been shown is a tragedy for the Pacific | World news

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What becomes of an organisation when it disregards one-third of its membership? What happens when “we” stops being inclusive?

As the eldest of four, I have always felt responsible for the safety, security, and well-being of my siblings. In my family, “I” has always been synonymous with “we”, the collective, being one inclusive family and ensuring no one is left out. This is what I understand to be the Palauan way; this is what I understand to be the Pacific Way.

This is how I have always envisioned the Pacific family, as siblings working together. It has been painful to me, personally, to see this mentality fall out of the Pacific Islands Forum, our pre-eminent regional grouping.

For two years, Micronesian leaders prepared for their long-awaited turn to lead the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

When they met on the margins of the 2019 74th UN General Assembly, Micronesia’s upcoming decision to appoint a new PIF secretary-general was one of the most pressing subjects of discussion.

The President of Palau, Surangel Whipps Jr
The President of Palau, Surangel Whipps Jr Photograph: The Guardian

The selection of the PIF secretary-general is a consensus decision, and by longstanding agreement, PIF’s three sub-regions – Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia – take turns putting up a candidate.

Other candidates are sometimes nominated, but in the end, “consensus” has historically prevailed. In the last cycle, other candidates were withdrawn in favour of Dame Meg Taylor, the consensus candidate from Melanesia.

This cycle, it was Micronesia’s turn.

In 2019, the Micronesian leaders unanimously nominated Gerald Zackios, Marshall Islands’ Ambassador to the United States, as Micronesia’s candidate for PIF secretary-general.

President Tommy Remengesau, Jr of Palau, who was the Chair of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit (MPS) at the time, encouraged all Micronesian leaders to stand in solidarity with their region’s interests and to support their consensus candidate.

However, as the appointment process drew closer, it became clear that PIF members outside Micronesia were less than committed to the established process. Strong PIF members, including Australia and New Zealand, indicated their interest in additional candidates.

As the decision approached, the PIF leadership remained deaf to Micronesian concerns.

Over the continuous protests of our leadership, the PIF secretary-general selection was repeatedly postponed.

To add insult to injury, the deadline to nominate secretary-general candidates was also extended, over the formal objections of all five Micronesian members, allowing multiple candidates to compete with Micronesia’s even after they had missed the boat.

The opportunity of this wrongful deadline extension was widely exploited to put up new candidates, and in the end, non-Micronesian candidates were nominated from countries including Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, and the Cook Islands.

In light of these troubling developments, Micronesian leaders gathered again in Palau in September 2020 and ratified the Mekreos Communique.

Mekreos firmly reminded all PIF members of the established agreement on subregional rotation.

Furthermore, it warned all other members that Micronesia saw no value in participating in the forum, should it fail to honour the existing agreement on subregional rotation.

Majuro atoll in the Marshall islands. The Marshalls is one of five Micronesian countries to have abandoned the Pacific Islands Forum after their candidate for the secretary-generalship was overlooked.
Majuro atoll in the Marshall islands. The Marshalls is one of five Micronesian countries to have abandoned the Pacific Islands Forum after their candidate for the secretary-generalship was overlooked. Photograph: Dmitry Malov/Alamy

Since the Mekreos Communique, Palau installed a new government, and I took over from former president Remengesau. One of the first discussions we had during the transition process focused on this issue.

The provisions of the Mekreos Communique were not the opinions of five individual people. The Mekreos Communique was a representative document, reflecting the feelings of the national leaderships – and more importantly, the people – of five nations.

From my perspective, the choice was made before I even came to office. All I can do now is what my country already promised.

This month, over the continuing objections of Micronesia, the PIF discarded the consensus decision-making process in favour of a secret ballot.

After being repeatedly overruled, we had no choice but to participate in this unprecedented procedure, hoping our Pacific brothers and sisters would ultimately respect our region’s right to choose.

Several non-Micronesian countries did, and we are grateful to them. But in the end, Polynesia’s Henry Puna won the election by a single vote.

What can be further from consensus than a one-vote margin?

Nine countries broke the agreement on sub-regional rotation, and tragically any one of them could have changed the outcome.

Australia, which had promised not to “influence the process” and instead “to simply get behind the consensus candidate,” could have declined to break this tie. It could have abstained in search of actual “consensus.” New Zealand could have done the same, as could have Fiji, home of the Forum headquarters.

The lack of leadership by PIF’s strongest members could hardly be more jarring.

Over the history of the agreement on sub-regional rotation, Micronesia has only produced one secretary-general, compared to Polynesia’s seven, Melanesia’s three, and Australia’s two.

Unfortunately, this has never been a standalone issue. It reflects the Micronesian region’s representation all too well. The disrespect we have been shown by forum leadership, as well as forum members, for the last two years was the last straw.

The forum purports to combine 18 nations as “One Blue Pacific Continent”, united in efforts to promote peace, harmony, social inclusion, equal participation, and prosperity.

The last in-person Pacific Islands Forum, held in Funafuti, Tuvalu in 2019. 2020’s meeting was delayed until January 2021, and resulted in the departure of the five Micronesian nations from the forum.
The last in-person Pacific Islands Forum, held in Funafuti, Tuvalu in 2019. 2020’s meeting was delayed until January 2021, and resulted in the departure of the five Micronesian nations from the forum. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

It is supposed to be a union of equals.

Micronesia has never felt quite “equal”, but neither has it felt so thoroughly and publicly disregarded as it has during this process.

It seems, in retrospect, that some PIF members may have blundered into this process, not truly understanding what was at stake.

That is a tragedy. And in the aftermath of this tragedy, we have a lot of tough questions to answer.

We have questions to answer about the differing treatment of non-sovereign states in the north and south Pacific.

There is no question that the north and south Pacific apply different standards for membership; otherwise, there would be much more balance between Polynesia and Micronesia.

We have questions to answer about the goals and interests of a “united” Pacific. Do Australia and New Zealand realistically share the same interests as small island developing states?

We have questions to answer about the role of outside influence in decisions made “by the Pacific”. Did the Marshall Islands’ relationship with Taiwan hurt its candidacy in the South Pacific? Did Ambassador Zackios’s relationship with Washington?

The PIF is meant to be our forum, which puts us at the forefront of international issues.

But within our own group, we give way to abusive foreign pressure. Within our own group, we are willing to sideline one-third of our membership. Are we preaching to the world that we as Pacific Island countries have an equal voice, but within our own group, marginalise our own brothers and sisters?

Micronesia is exerting outsized influence on climate change and leads in ocean conservation with outcomes and commitments comparable to big countries. We have some of the world’s strongest responses on Covid-19.

Is this not enough to show our merit? Do we not deserve respect?

Surangel Whipps Jr is the President of Palau

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