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Micronesia exits the Pacific Island Forum over leadership dispute

Source: Flickr, US Embassy/ 48th Pacific Islands Forum, September 2017

Declan Hourd

The Pacific Island Forum (PIF) is an inter-governmental organisation founded in 1971 and is headquartered in Suva, Fiji. The PIF has 18 member countries drawing from all three subregions of the Pacific (Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia), as well as Australia and New Zealand. The organisation aims to foster cooperation between its members, other Pacific organisations, and corporations to collaborate on issues that affect all Pacific Island countries. The PIF places particular emphasis on a regional approach to sustainable development and trade, issues relating to climate change, and good governance.

On February 4, 2021 a vote was held over video conference to decide the next Secretary General of the PIF. In a result of 9-8, Henry Puna, former prime minister of the Cook Islands, was elected to the position. In response, the five Micronesian members of the PIF (Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia) issued a joint communique announcing their withdrawal from the organisation. Palau has also closed its Fijian embassy protesting the result.

This walk out was triggered by a violation of a tradition surrounding the changing of the position. The informal agreement between PIF members sees that the role of Secretary General rotates between Melanesians, Micronesians, and Polynesians, with Australians and New Zealanders agreeing to not compete. The Micronesians believe that their candidate, Marshallese Gerald Zackios, should have won the secretariat because the incumbent, Dame Meg Taylor, is Papua New Guinean, and her predecessor was Polynesian. Additionally, PIF Secretary Generals tend to serve two consecutive 3-year terms. As such, the election of Puna will probably keep Micronesians out of the office for six years rather than three. Moreover, the first and last Micronesian to hold the Secretary General position was, former Kiribati President, Ieremia Tabai in 1992.

This protest represents tensions regarding some of the underlying inequalities within the PIF. As Australia and New Zealand have strong cultural and diplomatic ties to Melanesia and Polynesia respectively, a complaint of Micronesia is that the preferred candidate of these countries tends to win the secretariat. A second issue is the exclusion of Guam and the North Mariana Islands because they are unincorporated American territories, but the inclusion of French Polynesia and New Caledonia, despite being overseas French territories. As such, Micronesian PIF members are in a weaker negotiating position because their faction does not represent the entire subregion.

From 2004 to 2008, the rotation between Pacific subregions was disturbed when an Australian, Greg Urwin, was elected to the secretariat. Australia violated this norm because the regional security environment of the South Pacific in the early 2000s was becoming unstable. A prolonged civil conflict in Papua New Guinea had concluded in 1998 and in 2000 Fiji experienced a violent coup which overthrew the government. The prevailing strategy from Canberra focused on significant Australian involvement and engagement in the region. The major event of the era that exemplifies this policy was the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands in 2003. It was an Australian-led state building program designed to restore a government that was rendered non-functional due to ethnic conflict. A legacy of the Urwin secretariat was the Pacific Plan, a regional commitment towards joint security, good governance, and sustainable development.

The exit of the Micronesian states could be disastrous for the future of the PIF. Growing subregional conflict and factionalism undercut the themes of regional cooperation and togetherness that underpin the PIF. In practical terms, it weakens the organisation's bargaining power with external entities, calls into question whether the reforms of the PIF will continue to be upheld by the Micronesians, and broadly damages the credibility of the organisation as a unifying body. As the process of withdrawal from the PIF begins, perhaps diplomacy and a resumption of in-person meetings can convince Micronesia to halt their departure.


Declan Hourd is a recent Master of International Relations graduate from the University of NSW. He is interested in exploring the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific and what that means for the people who live there.



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