The Pacific Islands Forum has come and gone, and people here in Vanuatu could not care less. There are few Pacific conclaves that generate less interest than this meeting.
In principle, nobody particularly disapproves of getting all Pacific leaders together once a year for a bit of a chat and maybe some minor course correction.
In practice, it seems clear that not all leaders are equal in the eyes of the Forum.
This year more than ever, the final communiqué simply side-stepped any views that didn’t suit the developed nation members.
The event might more accurately be described as the McCully/Bishop Forum.
The region-wide movement to disown PACER Plus was simply ignored in the final language. If Vanuatu needed any other excuse to walk away from this one-sided deal, their treatment in Pohnpei provided one. Scuttlebutt from the venue has it that France’s inclusion in the Forum was anything but a unanimous decision. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai exercised characteristic tact and diplomacy when asked about it, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to imagine how Vanuatu, one of the staunchest supporters of decolonisation in the Pacific, felt about bringing France into the Forum fold.
France was excluded from the Forum specifically because of its refusal to discuss issues of decolonialisation when the organisation was formed in the 1970s.
West Papua is perhaps the only topic that could dampen Vanuatu’s joy following its under-20 football team winning their way to a World Cup berth. And once again, the Forum has gone to excruciating lengths to make the least possible effort to stop the ‘slow motion genocide’ under way in PNG’s eastern neighbour.
In their wrap-up of the Forum, Tess Newton Cain and Matt Dornan write, “of the 48 regional policy public submissions that were received, 13 concerned West Papua.”
With admirable restraint, they continue: “last year’s measured statement announcing the establishment of an independent fact-finding mission looks positively assertive when compared to this year’s communiqué, which simply states that leaders ‘recognised the political sensitivities of the issue of West Papua (Papua) and agreed the issue of alleged human rights violations in West Papua (Papua) should remain on their agenda’ (while also agreeing ‘on the importance of an open and constructive dialogue with Indonesia’). The influence of the larger Forum members was likely at play here, including that of Australia, New Zealand, PNG and Fiji.”
But the silence was even more deafening—if such a thing were possible—where climate change is concerned.
One would think that a post-Paris meeting of the most at-risk countries in the world might feature some meaningful language concerning the single greatest existential threat the globe faces today.
One would be wrong.
If last year’s betrayal of the 1.5 degree global temperature rise limit wasn’t enough, this year we saw effectively no effort to slow the now-inevitable rise in global temperatures.
The closest we came to progress was to kick the Strategy for Resilient Development—an attempt to integrate climate change mitigation and disaster risk management—down the road.
An earlier version of the plan was rejected last year because it failed to cut the mustard last year, largely because of tepid Loss and Damage commitments.
This year, Cain and Dornan tell us the plan is back. The “voluntary nature of the framework agreed this year was no doubt helpful in securing leaders’ agreement.”
No doubt, indeed.
Some day, the bigger global fish are going to realise that they aren’t so big, and the small fry aren’t so small. We are all minnows in an increasingly crowded pond.
And when the sun begins to dry it, there’s no use in pretending the water’s only evaporating from someone else’s part of the pool.
Of course, the PIF wasn’t piffle for everyone concerned. Indonesia can take comfort that Australia, Fiji, PNG and New Zealand are still willing to carry their water, even in the face of a rising groundswell of protest over their continued occupation of West Papua.
Australia’s mining sector can hold their heads high at their ability to hold back a rising tide.
Fiji’s ruling regime danced through the meeting with characteristic aplomb, even as rumours of state-sponsored execution attempts circulate, and Opposition leaders are carted off to the clink.
If nothing else, the Vanuatu delegation got to visit the country with the second-most potent kava in the world. On an island so nice it looks like one of ours. That’s not nothing.
The online version of this article has been slightly edited from the print version.