Marshalls MPs call for re-evaluating, not dropping, ties to Forum

6:58 pm on 5 February 2021

Majuro - In its first parliament session Friday following the vote for the new Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General earlier this week, government and opposition MPs lined up to express unhappiness with the result. But no one advocated pulling out from the regional organization.

The Marshall Islands parliament during its opening session of 2021 in January.

The Marshall Islands parliament during its opening session of 2021 in January. Photo: Eve Burns

The operative word from most of the MPs who spoke Friday in Majuro was for the government to "re-assess" its relationship with the Forum following the defeat, by a 9-8 vote, of Marshall Islands' Ambassador to the US, Gerald Zackios. He was endorsed by all five Micronesian area heads of state as the candidate for the sub-region.

However, the former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna won the vote in a marathon online Pacific Forum leaders summit.

"The presidents (from Micronesia) will meet soon to discuss the situation," said Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Casten Nemra.

He and others expressed unhappiness that Forum leaders had ignored the "gentlemen's agreement" that governed rotating the Secretary General position among the three sub-regions in the Pacific.

"The Forum is marking its 50th anniversary this year and only once has the Secretary General come from Micronesia," said Nemra, referring to former Kiribati President Ieremia Tabai who held the post for two terms in the 1990s.

"All four other Micronesian presidents joined with us to support us having the privilege of the Secretary General post," Nemra said, adding: "I'm not happy with the outcome."

The Marshall Islands president, David Kabua, opened the report to parliament - which had unanimously adopted a resolution in support of Zackios the day before the Forum vote - by briefly describing the results of the vote without any observation except to thank those who supported Zackios.

While Nemra initially stated that the Micronesian presidents will meet to discuss "if it is important to be in the Forum, because it doesn't recognize leaders in this region," he later in the parliament session agreed with opposition MP and former Foreign Minister John Silk that the Marshall Islands shouldn't pull out of the Forum but needed to review its participation.

Silk, who has been in parliament for over 20 years and was foreign minister under President Hilda Heine who nominated Zackios for the Forum post, urged the government to "look within our sub-region" as part of evaluating its engagement in the Forum.

He urged Marshall Islands President David Kabua to talk with the other four presidents in the Micronesia area about bringing US territories Guam and the Northern Marianas "into the picture."

He noted that some might observe that these two are territories. But, he said, the Cook Islands isn't an independent country and uses New Zealand passports.

Silk also was critical of the staffing makeup at the Suva-based Forum Secretariat, saying that they employ virtually no one from the north Pacific. "I don't recommend pulling out," he said. "But we need to reassess and figure out how we move forward."

Former President Heine in a Tweet following the Forum leaders' vote congratulated newly elected Secretary General Henry Puna of the Cook Islands and added: "In not honoring the well known gentlemen's agreement, however, the process left a bad taste in our mouths, & the realization that Micronesian countries could never be integral or significant players in the PIF."

Both Palau and Federated States of Micronesia presidents also offered critical comments. with Palau's president, Surangel Whipps, Jr, telling RNZ Pacific that Palau was preparing to leave the Forum.

"Although we call this organization the Pacific Islands Forum, it's acting like the South Pacific Forum," said Whipps, who is in his first month in office. He added that South Pacific nations don't consider the north "part of them."

FSM President David Panuelo told ABC's Pacific Beat Thursday that the vote showed "a failure of the Pacific Way." He said the five presidents would meet soon "to discuss our next steps."