This week, 9 out of 18 countries that are members of the Pacific Island Forum voted former prime minister of Cook Islands, Henry Puna as Secretary General of PIF. 8 countries that include 5 Micronesian countries and 3 from South Pacific voted for Gerald Zackious, Marshall Ambassador to United States and nominee of the Micronesian countries to the position of SG of PIF. Of course, that meant Micronesian candidate lost by 1 vote.
Does it matter to us who won and will it affect us in anyway? It matters in that this is the first time that Micronesia (Palau, FSM, RMI, Nauru and Kiribati) submitted a nominee for the position of SG. Palau has been a member of PIF since 1995 while others have been members longer. It matters because of the ultimatum given by the Micronesia sub-regional group to leave PIF if their nominee is not selected.
Micronesia submitted their candidate invoking the standing tradition of Gentleman’s Agreement, an unspoken but shared understanding that the leadership of the Forum will rotate among all the subregional groups for the purpose of inclusiveness and solidarity. The finalization of the selection was to occur using the Pacific Way of consensus to reach a decision.
Due to number of possible factors such as COVID-19 pandemic that prevented face-to-face meetings among leaders, leaders from member countries did not fully exercise the consensus building process to reach a decision, rather called for a vote where south pacific countries have advantage in numbers.
Some of the distracting factors include focused attention on national and internal crisis due to COVID, external agendas imposed in the Pacific, selective amnesia on the part of some PIF member countries that have their own candidates for the position and conveniently forgetting or dismissing the Gentleman’s Agreement.
So how are we really affected by this? Directly, there is no real impact. A regular Palauan on the street doesn’t know what PIF stands for. Even people in various levels of leadership have difficulty pointing out what being a PIF member means for us. Resources allocated to PIF members get distributed over larger more populous members first and Palau and Micronesian countries usually receives insignificant amount for people to notice.
President Whipps said the benefits include sharing and learning from each other information such as COVID-19 recovery efforts. He upholds the importance of working to maintain Pacific unity.
Former President Remengesau echoed saying that no man is an island but leaving PIF does not stop Palau from collaborating and participating with Pacific countries in areas of common interests as a member of SIDS, UN or many of the CROP agencies.
Palau’s strongest allies have been its bilateral partners such as the United States, Taiwan, and Japan. Micronesian countries have control of nearly 50% of the pacific purse seiner industry. North Pacific countries have more in common with each other and shared history.
Micronesia, Palau included, will not lose anything if it leaves PIF.
A new, stronger north pacific sub-region might emerge as a result of this seemingly straightforward selection process. A small pebble thrown into a pond causing a great wave of change. (By: L.N. Reklai)