This week Pacific leaders are meeting in Port Moresby for the 46th Pacific Islands Forum. Against the backdrop of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism process, the slogan of this year’s Forum is ‘strengthening connections to enhance Pacific regionalism’. However, the meeting of the pre-eminent regional body is taking place following months of challenges to the regional governance architecture. As Australian scholar Greg Fry argues, what’s at stake in Port Moresby is no less than the future relevance of the Pacific Islands Forum.
New Zealand also has much at stake. New Zealand’s campaign for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) included the message that NZ would be a trusted and independent advocate for non-permanent member states, particularly Small Island and Developing States (SIDS). New Zealand’s success was viewed as an opportunity to champion issues that impact the Pacific at the global level. The collective support of the Pacific Islands Forum was, after all, critical for NZ's UNSC campaign. During its presidency of the Security Council in July, NZ sponsored an open debate on the peace and security challenges facing SIDS with NZ stating it is a Pacific country with a significant stake...in our region. NZ’s credibility in the neighbourhood is at stake now more than ever.
The first issue is climate change. As Fry notes, Pacific leaders will be seeking a unified Forum position to take to the United Nations Climate Change Summit (COP 21) in Paris this November. Specifically, leaders will be calling for key shared commitments on mitigation and emission targets which will restrict global warming temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, fearing a 2 degree Celsius target will risk the survival of the low-lying Pacific island states.
Considerable work has been done to pave the way for a Forum consensus in Moresby. This year a network of climate change declarations have been issued by sub-regional groupings and NGO collectives. The Oceania 21 Leaders’ Summit released the Lifou Declaration and the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN) agreed on a draft Moresby Declaration in June; in July, the Polynesian Leaders Group issued the Taputapuatea Declaration. Earlier this month, the Pacific Islands Development Fund (PIDF) 3rd Summit delivered the Suva Declaration.
Collectively, these declarations lay down a challenge to the Forum to achieve a climate policy accord. However, NZ’s - and Australia’s - emission reduction targets (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)) – are inconsistent with keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees let alone the 1.5 degrees called for by Pacific leaders. A recent Oxfam report, A Question of Survival, claims that the NZ and Australian Governments are “threatening the very survival of some Pacific nations.”
If the Forum fails to find common ground, its credibility will be severely compromised even if the majority of leaders support a declaration. The region’s governance architecture has become increasingly contested since Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s refused to rejoin the regional grouping unless NZ and Australian influence within the Forum was addressed. Several Pacific leaders criticised Bainimarama for his stance, but a sense of frustration that Wellington and Canberra are driving the regional agenda - at times at the expense of Pacific interests - has growing currency and legitimacy within the region.
The second contentious issue on the Forum agenda is West Papua. This will be the first time Forum leaders officially discuss West Papua. It comes largely as a result of regional advocacy. The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) campaigned for membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and was granted observer status in June. The ULMWP are calling for a Forum fact-finding mission to conduct an assessment of human rights abuses in the Indonesian-controlled province.
Neither Wellington nor Canberra are willing to be open critics of Indonesia. New Zealand has been particularly quiet following Jakarta’s cancellation of the ill-considered Eastern Indonesia Community Policing Programme. However, like climate change, the issue of West Papua may demonstrate how out of step – and out of touch – NZ and Australia are with their Pacific neighbours.
At the Forum meeting, however, it is likely that NZ and Australia will leverage discord amongst Pacific leaders themselves over West Papua to weaken the Forum’s position. Fiji, for example, has said it thinks Papua it a sovereign issue of Indonesia, a position PNG’s Peter O’Neill also supports.
Prime Minister John Key has headed to Port Moresby with a handful of business leaders on the back of the heavily criticised PACER Plus negotiations and having suspended aid to Nauru’s justice sector, citing human rights concerns. What he will find is a challenge to NZ’s credibility and leadership in the region. NZ has an opportunity this week to demonstrate that it is genuinely part of the Pacific or face diminishing relevance in a region of increasing geo-strategic significance.
Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University and Director of Women in International Security New Zealand (WIIS). She can be emailed at A.R.Powles@massey.ac.nz