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Pacific Islands Forum rift mended in Suva

Tuesday 7 June 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in Regional

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In a watershed moment, Pacific Islands Forum leaders have agreed on terms to prevent Micronesian countries from breaking up the premiere regional body.

The row, which came to a head in February last year, centred around the selection of a candidate for the top job at the Forum, with Micronesia feeling snubbed when its candidate Gerald Zackios was overlooked for the former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna.

The high level political dialogue was held in-person on Tuesday in the Fiji capital Suva.

It was hosted by Fiji's prime minister Frank Bainimarama the current chair of the Forum and attended by the leaders of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa and the Cook Islands.

To outsiders looking in, the Forum row over an executive position might have looked a bit silly.

But it was about more than just a job title.

As the president of Palau Surangel Whipps Jr explains it, it was a feeling on the Micronesians part of being excluded from the day to day business of the Forum and by extension the region as a whole.

"Micronesia said the SG (secretary general) is supposed to be Micronesian. But what is more important is, let us look long term."

And it is that long term vision that clinched the deal for the Micronesians in Suva.

They came in wanting Puna out and were offered to have the rotation of the top job by sub-region put into writing and become a permanent fixture of the Forum going forward.

"By the Forum agreeing that now we are going to put it in writing. It is going to be rotational we are going to be more inclusive at the head office, have deputies that represent the region, and sub-regional offices and the other the oceans commissioner all those add to being inclusive."

President Surangel Whipps Jr delivers his inaugural address, January 21.
President Surangel Whipps Jr delivers his inaugural address, January 21. Photo: Richard Brooks

Samoa's prime minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa is new at the helm and was not part of the events that led up to the rift. But she says she is pleased to be part of the solution.

"We need to go through the process of all the members signing up, but those of us who are here, six of us, I think are representative of the three sub-regions and hopefully we will be able to implement what has been proposed and agreed to."

This is a crucial detail. The clock is still ticking towards when the formal withdrawal processes initiated by the five disgruntled Micronesian states last year becomes official. RNZ Pacific understands the first of the matures at the end of this month.

That being said, it is still a huge break through and one the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, says he is grateful for.

"Because just a few days a go it could have been that we will walk away and break up the entire Pacific Family but the common ground that we have reached has kept us together."

President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo.
President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo. Photo: RNZ / Jamie Tahana

Both Panuelo and Whipps Jr acknowledged the mediation of Pacific Islands Forum chair Frank Bainimarama and the Troika plus members and all other leaders involved in the political dialogue leading up to this juncture.