Pacific Islands Forum: Finding meaning in a ‘typo’?
16 Mar 2021|

Sometimes what appears to be a mistake is just prescience waiting for events to catch up. This may be the case with the ‘slip of the pen’ in the Federated States of Micronesia’s note verbale to Fiji implementing its decision to quit the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), as announced by the five Micronesian members—the FSM, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau—in an earlier communiqué.

The FSM denounced the Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum (2005) rather than the similar sounding Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (2000) cited in the Micronesian presidents’ communiqué.

The error could be dismissed as just a typo—someone left out the key word ‘Secretariat’ in hasty drafting. However, the slip cannot be attributed solely to a missing word. The note verbale actually cites the relevant article from the 2005 treaty rather than the appropriate article from the 2000 treaty.

Some have argued that this error will have no practical consequence. Since Fiji is the depository state for both treaties, it will know what is meant. Recent events, however, may well turn the FSM’s diplomatic faux pas into an act of prescience.

The error was possible because there are two treaties, but only one—the 2000 treaty establishing the PIF secretariat—is in force. Precognition rather than error may come from deliberations underway in the Fijian parliament to ratify the 2005 treaty. It’s said the decision to ratify will be the last needed to bring the 2005 treaty into force.

This issue highlights one of the long-standing concerns going back to the very origins of the PIF. The leaders who founded the PIF’s predecessor, the South Pacific Forum, strongly resisted taking their association down the treaty path.

The second leaders’ meeting held in Canberra in February 1972 devoted most of its time to organisational issues. Critically, the leaders wanted to avoid the bureaucratic constraints which they felt had stymied their efforts to reform the South Pacific Commission in 1970.

Nevertheless, they felt that they needed some administrative support for their development aspirations and, with some hesitancy, agreed to establish a small OECD-type office to be called the South Pacific Bureau of Economic Cooperation, or SPEC.

Both to limit costs and to preserve relative equality, SPEC was to be funded by a formula of balanced interests rather than membership. The island members collectively paid a third, Australia a third and New Zealand a third.

Contrary to some suggestions, SPEC was not intended to be a secretariat, and nor was it a new name for the 1960s Pacific Islands Producers Association (PIPA). PIPA was formally incorporated into SPEC in 1974 and SPEC was only given a limited secretarial role in organising the annual leaders’ meetings in 1975.

A second challenge for the 1972 forum meeting was expanded membership. Both Niue and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony were plausible candidates because of their membership in PIPA. Australia was keen to support the inclusion of Papua New Guinea.

PNG was hopeful, given the apparent inconsistency of having the Cook Islands as a founding member of the forum (even though it wasn’t fully independent) resisting fellow PIPA members Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony and Niue. A brokered decision held that none of the three had technically reached ‘final political status’ but, through its free-association arrangement with New Zealand, the Cook Islands had.

PNG was less than satisfied with that outcome. An expedited admission in 1974, a year before its independence, soothed, but did not eliminate a sense of Melanesian grievance at the Polynesian bias of the forum.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and SPEC had gradually acquired more responsibility on the forum’s behalf so that by 1988 it was officially rebadged as the South Pacific Forum Secretariat.

A treaty to formalise those changes and supplant the SPEC agreement was drafted in 1991 and entered into force in 1993.

This treaty was replaced in 2000 with a new instrument that changed the names of both the forum and the secretariat to recognise the membership north of the equator just as the Pacific Community had done in 1997.

An eminent persons’ group review in 2004 noted that the 2000 secretariat agreement was ‘out of date’ and recommended drafting a new treaty.

Significantly, the 2005 agreement overturned the 1972 decision not to formalise the leaders’ meetings by establishing the forum as an international organisation with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat as its administrative arm.

This bold move became the 2005 agreement that the FSM has attempted to denounce, perhaps prematurely.

A variety of factors explain why the island leaders have resisted fully formalising the PIF as an intergovernmental organisation. Preserving the 1972 preference for the flexibility and equality of heads of government meeting unconstrained by bureaucrats is a recurrent one.

The PIF’s history of preserving flexibility and making its own rules as an association of leaders rather than as a formal international treaty organisation is central to the Micronesian states’ annoyance with the breaking of the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ on the selection of the PIF secretary-general.

If the 2005 agreement comes into force with Fiji’s certification of ratification, the regional turmoil may be seriously aggravated.

All five Micronesian states have already ratified the 2005 treaty and so will be members of the newly minted Pacific Islands Forum. A new round of denouncements with a new timeline will be needed.

Political questions regarding membership of the two French territories will also be raised. They were allowed participation (including voting rights) under the 2000 agreement as ‘Governments’. The 2005 treaty specifies ‘states’ not ‘Governments’.

Will the government of France allow French Polynesia and New Caledonia to claim statehood to accede to the 2005 treaty? Given the forthcoming third referendum in New Caledonia and the current pro-independence majority in the territory, this must be an open question.

If French Polynesia is no longer in a position to claim voting rights, it will rub some salt into the Micronesian wound, as the territory arguably may have given former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna the ninth vote to claim the secretary-general’s job.

As events stand now, the FSM denouncement looks more like prescience than error, but perhaps just premature.