Report – By Michael Sergel
As this year’s Pacific Islands Forum enters its third day, the Pacific remains divided on the role and relevance of the region’s largest leadership summit, and whether Fiji should be a part of it.
Carbon emissions and fishing industry regulation have been among topics of conversation for delegates from sixteen member states during Wednesday’s talks – but an about-turn by New Zealand government on Fiji received the most attention.
The New Zealand government recognised Fiji’s constitution – due for assent tomorrow – as a step towards liberal democracy and human rights in the country. It also looked towards greater engagement with the state.
It followed similar stances from the Australian government, Australian opposition and New Zealand opposition. And it came just days before an Australian election in which Tony Abbott’s Coalition have suggested substantially greater relations with the Fijian government.
“Contrary to the claims of Fiji’s government over the last few months, the new constitution actually weakens human rights protections in the country,” Amnesty International deputy Asia-Pacific director Isabelle Arradon said.
“The new constitution not only erodes basic human rights for the people of Fiji, but grants military, police and government officials absolute immunity for past, present and future human rights violations. This will only serve to allow the perpetrators of serious crimes to act with impunity.”
This year’s Forum came as Fiji has tried to ramp up its engagement with the increasingly powerful Melanesian Spearhead Group trade agreement and the Pacific Islands Development Forum sustainability summit.
Although Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama accused Australia and New Zealand of undermining the newly-created Suva-based Pacific Islands Development Forum, it was attended by representatives from across the region.
It seems that the two forums are at loggerheads. But the members of the Development Forum are drawn from the Forum, I suppose there is room for both of them, and I suppose there is room for engagement between the two.
The only differences between them are membership and strategy. The Development Forum is more inclusive of civil society organisations and the private sector, while the Forum is fundamentally to do with political leaders.
Dr Ratuva said the state-centred and elite-centred nature of the Pacific Islands Forum needs to be reconfigured, and the Development Forum could provide the model for that change.
“All they need to do is reconfigure with Pacific people. The Pacific Plan has failed to do that, the PIF has failed to do that, but once that’s done there is no need to worry about the Development Forum,” he said.
Dr Ratuva said the current review of the Pacific Plan, led by former Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, was the perfect opportunity to reconsider how the Pacific Islands Forum operated.
He said most Pacific people did not even know that the Pacific Plan existed, let alone felt “a sense of ownership” of the elite-driven, “ambitious and unworkable” document that did not appear to have the interests of the Pacific Islands at its core.
“Hopefully, the Pacific Plan Review will look at some of the issues that were drawn from the discussions, and use those as the basis we can reframe the future of the Forum. There is a lot to be done in terms of making it more effective and making it more relevant,” Dr Ratuva said.
“At the moment it is just a beautiful piece of paper with ambitious plans on pillars – security, governance, sustainable development or economic growth. Whether those pillars are reflective of the interests of the Pacific people or whether they are reflective more of the big funders, like Australia for instance, is an issue that has been of major concern over the last few years.”
Dr Ratuva questioned the level of interest Australia and New Zealand had in the concerns of their Pacific neighbours.
At the moment Australia and New Zealand are not interested in the Pacific. They are more interested in Asia because China is their major trading partner and Asia is where the money’s coming from.
When they look at the Forum meeting, they see themselves as part of the Pacific. But in the daily operation of government, the Pacific doesn’t exist. They would rather be members of APEC and ASEAN and engage with Europe and the United States.
‘Not a backyard’
Dr Ratuva said Australia and New Zealand need to take their social, cultural, economic and geographic connections with the Pacific seriously – and it is their non-engagement that opened the door for China’s growing relationship with Fiji, Samoa and other Pacific countries.
The Pacific is seen as the backyard, but at the end of the day they are part of the Pacific. I think it is important they should start to take the Pacific more seriously, because they are neighbours and there are a lot of historical links.
The fact that China is coming into the Pacific has raised a lot of concern in both countries, because they haven’t been good guardians of the Pacific. So the Pacific Island nations are looking north to China.
For a long time the Forum has taken for granted being the only political summit in the Pacific – the undisputed representative of the Pacific people. But now, with competition, it has to re-strategise and re-look at how it can maintain its support within the Pacific.
But, at the end of the day, the sub-regional organisations of the Pacific should not act as oppositions to the Forum. They should try to be cooperative and supportive of each other, and a lot to be learned by engagement with each other rather than competing for dominance.
The Pacific is a very small space in a very large place, and Dr Ratuva said its “very small constituency” simply cannot sustain a myriad of forums competing for supremacy.
Multiple forums, many concerns
Oxfam New Zealand director Barry Coates said both the Pacific Islands Forum and Pacific Islands Development Forum had their part to play.
The Pacific Islands Development Forum provided small states with an important opportunity to discuss trade and a range of other matters “without Australia and New Zealand in the room” and the Pacific Islands Forums could provide the opportunity for leaders to raise important issues at a regional level, he said.
Coates hoped leaders would discuss gender equity issues, including access to credit, wages, employment, land and political representation, and educating against domestic violence.
He said New Zealand and other Pacific countries also needed to be “commended” for important work and discussion towards renewable energy.
Pacific Island Forum delegates continue their talks at a retreat today, before being joined by an international delegation of donor states on Friday.
Michael Sergel is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies (Journalism) student, who recently completed the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.