In the Pacific, it’s about talk: conversation and consensus.
For the 50 years of Pacific Islands Forum (beginning its life as the South Pacific Forum), meetings have always taken place in person, and it is the power of leaders being together that has given the forum its rare ability to find common ground.
In 2014, as journalist Nic Maclellan remember, the Prime Ministers of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea took a leisurely walk together under the trees on the island of Peleliu in Palau. They returned with an agreement on a new general secretary of the forum.
However, that will not happen this year. The 2020 forum, after numerous delays, will take place on Wednesday, but virtually, and the leaders, if the internet allows, will come together through Zoom.
Given all that the Pacific and the world have sacrificed in this pandemic, a forum reduced to a virtual meeting is far from the greatest loss. But it is already having consequences, with threats from some countries to abandon the forum altogether for lack of consensus on who will now lead it.
The Pacific Islands Forum needs a new boss: Dame Meg Taylor is set to return to PNG after six years, and the debate over who will replace her as the forum’s secretary general, the region’s top diplomat and bureaucrat, has raged. become unusually confrontational.
By convention (with occasional deviations), the leadership runs through the three main subgroups in the region: Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia.
This time it’s Micronesia’s turn, and its candidate, the Marshall Islands’ ambassador to the United States, Gerald Zackios, might have expected his promotion to be a formality by now.
But without the opportunity for regular meetings and discussions among leaders to find a consensus candidate, he faces a formidable group of rivals: from Polynesia, former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands Henry Puna, and international development economist from Tonga. Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua; and from Melanesia, the former Foreign Minister of Fiji, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, and Jimmie Rodgers of the Solomon Islands, former Director General of the Pacific Community.
Micronesian countries argue that if their “turn” in the general secretariat is not respected, they could leave the forum altogether.
“If we cannot fulfill our commitments, we have to think of other alternatives, which is necessary to get out of this relationship,” said Palau’s new president, Surangel Whipps Jr, last week.
“Those commitments are based on trust and it is important as leaders in the Pacific to build on that trust. Once that trust is broken, perhaps we should go in a different direction. “
Bluff or not, it represents a serious fracture. The importance of face-to-face meetings cannot be understated in the Pacific. It is, in large part, the essence of the “Pacific Way.”
“Unlike the UN, the Pacific is a tight-knit community,” Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute he told The Guardian. “The island leaders in particular are used to seeing each other regularly, used to these things taking time, while they talk and reflect on these decisions.”
“The Pacific Islands Forum prides itself on consensus decision-making. Decisions can be controversial but they always reach that consensus. How that will work with Zoom, with possible Internet bandwidth and connectivity issues, we don’t know. “
Finding a new leader with broad support and authority across the region comes at a critical time for the Pacific as its economies falter under the imposition of Covid-19 travel closures, and its islands face the existential challenge of a global climate emergency that is hitting them first and hardest.
Forum leaders’ meetings typically provide a statement at the end, which in recent years has focused on the threats posed by climate change, but there won’t be one this year.
And the usual mixed bag of issues being debated – climate change, protecting the ‘Blue Pacific’, economic and human development, West Papua – has been reduced to one: finding a new boss.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism