What happens to an organization when it ignores a third of its members? What happens when “we” stop being inclusive?
As the oldest of four, I have always felt responsible for the safety and well-being of my siblings. In my family, “I” has always been synonymous with “we”, the collective, being an inclusive family and ensuring that no one is left out. This is what I understand the Palauan style to be; This is what I understand to be the Pacific Way.
This is how I have always envisioned the Pacific family, as brothers working together. Personally, it has been painful for me to see this mindset drift out of the Pacific Islands Forum, our pre-eminent regional group.
For two years, Micronesian leaders prepared for their long-awaited turn to lead the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).
When they met on the sidelines of the 74th UN General Assembly in 2019, Micronesia’s upcoming decision to appoint a new PIF secretary general was one of the most pressing topics of discussion.
The selection of the general secretary of the PIF is a decision by consensus and, by long-standing agreement, the three sub-regions of the PIF (Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia) take turns presenting a candidate.
Sometimes other candidates are nominated, but in the end, historically “consensus” has prevailed. In the last cycle, other candidates were withdrawn in favor of Dame Meg Taylor, the consensus candidate from Melanesia.
This cycle, it was the turn of Micronesia.
In 2019, Micronesian leaders unanimously nominated Gerald Zackios, the Marshall Islands’ ambassador to the United States, as Micronesia’s candidate for PIF secretary general.
President Tommy Remengesau, son of Palau, who was the president of the Micronesia Presidents’ Summit (MPS) at the time, encouraged all Micronesian leaders to stand in solidarity with the interests of their region and support their consensus candidate.
However, as the appointment process approached, it became clear that PIF members outside of 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 Micronesia’s concerns.
In the face of continued protests from our leadership, the selection of the PIF general secretary was repeatedly postponed.
To add insult to injury, the deadline for nominating candidates for secretary general has also been extended, despite formal objections from the five Micronesian members, allowing several candidates to compete with Micronesia even after they have missed the boat.
The opportunity of this undue extension of the deadline was widely seized to present new candidates, and in the end, non-Micronesian candidates were nominated from countries such as Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and the Cook Islands.
In light of these troubling developments, Micronesian leaders met again in Palau in September 2020 and ratified the Mekreos Communiqué.
Mekreos strongly reminded all PIF members of the agreement established on sub-regional rotation.
In addition, he warned all other members that Micronesia did not see any value in participating in the forum, should it not comply with the existing agreement on subregional rotation.
Since the Mekreos Communiqué, Palau installed a new government and I replaced former President Remengesau. One of the first discussions we had during the transition process focused on this topic.
The provisions of the Mekreos Communiqué were not the opinions of five individual persons. The Mekreos Communiqué was a representative document, reflecting the sentiments of the national leaders – and more importantly, the people – of five nations.
From my perspective, the choice was made even before I took office. All I can do now is what my country has already promised.
This month, despite continued objections from Micronesia, the PIF scrapped the consensus decision-making process in favor of a secret ballot.
After being repeatedly rejected, we had no choice but to participate in this unprecedented proceeding, hoping that our Pacific brothers and sisters will finally respect our region’s right to choose.
Several non-Micronesian countries did, and we are grateful to them. But in the end, Henry Puna of Polynesia won the elections by a single vote.
What could be further from consensus than a margin of one vote?
Nine countries broke the subregional rotation agreement and, tragically, any one of them could have changed the outcome.
Australia, which had promised not to “influence the process” and instead to “just back the consensus candidate”, could have refused to break this tie. He could have abstained in search of a real “consensus”. New Zealand could have done the same, as could Fiji, home to the Forum venue.
The lack of leadership from the strongest PIF members could hardly be more jarring.
Throughout the history of the subregional rotation agreement, Micronesia has produced only one secretary general, compared to seven from Polynesia, three from Melanesia and two from Australia.
Unfortunately, this has never been a standalone problem. It reflects too well the representation of the Micronesia region. The lack of respect that the forum leaders, as well as the forum members, have shown us over the past two years was the last straw.
The forum aims to combine 18 nations as “A Blue Pacific Continent”, united in efforts to promote peace, harmony, social inclusion, equitable participation and prosperity.
It is supposed to be a union of equals.
Micronesia has never felt quite “the same,” but neither has it felt as deeply and publicly ignored as during this process.
In hindsight, it appears that some PIF members may have made a mistake in this process, without really understanding what was at stake.
That is a tragedy. And in the wake of this tragedy, we have many difficult questions to answer.
We have questions to answer about the different 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 external influence in decisions made “by the Pacific.” Did the Marshall Islands’ relationship with Taiwan hurt your bid in the South Pacific? Ambassador Zackios’ relationship with Washington?
The PIF is meant to be our forum, putting 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 set aside a third of our membership. Are we preaching to the world that we, as Pacific Island countries, have the same voice, but within our own group, we marginalize our own brothers and sisters?
Micronesia is exerting enormous influence on climate change and is leading ocean conservation with results and commitments comparable to those of large countries. We have some of the strongest answers in the world on Covid-19.
Isn’t this enough to show our merit? Don’t we deserve respect?
Surangel Whipps Jr is the president of Palau
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism