10 Jul 2022

Kiribati withdraws from Pacific Islands Forum

11:27 pm on 10 July 2022

By the RNZ Pacific Editorial Team

The 51st Pacific Forum Leaders (PIF) Meeting scheduled to start tomorrow has been dealt a major blow after the Kiribati government confirmed it has withdrawn from the forum "with immediate effect."

Taneti Maamau, President of Kiribati, speaks at the meeting with Pacific Island Forum Leaders, held on the sidelines of the seventy-first session of the General Assembly.

Kiribati President Taneti Maamau. Photo: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

RNZ Pacific has seen a copy of a leaked letter, dated 9 July, from Kiribati president Taneti Maamau to the forum's secretary-general Henry Puna, in which he expresses concerns over the regional body's leadership, as well as the Suva Agreement signed last month.

According to the leaked communication, Kiribati did not sign up to the now-controversial deal, which was touted to mend the leadership rift and prevent the Micronesian subregion to split from the region's premier political institution.

"We established a reform package that contains commitments that deepen trust and political cohesion across our region," Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama had said after the conclusion of a special two-day meeting with three Micronesian leaders and the leaders of Cook Islands and Samoa in June.

"Fiji fully supports its [Suva Agreement] adoption at the next Pacific Islands Forum," Bainimarama, also forum chair, said.

But in the letter to Puna, President Maamau states, "There was never a Micronesian Presidents' Summit (MPS) caucus decisions on the PIF reform packages that Kiribati was part of, and particularly an MPS collective decision to return to the PIF."

The Kiribati president also requested for the forum to push out the date of the leaders convening so it would not coincide with their National Day celebrations. However, it was not considered.

RNZ Pacific understands forum officials are now working behind the scenes to convince the Kiribati government to reconsider its decision and urgently fly them over for the high-level meeting in Fiji's capital.

RNZ has contacted the Forum Secretariat for comment.

Bringing the 'family together'

Pacific leaders have attempted to bring the "family together" and resolve the political impasse for months, but there appears to be an apparent fracture within the forum.

Last week, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, who is confirmed to be attending the meeting in Suva headed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, said the forum is "at the heart of our engagement with the region".

Mahuta welcomed the Suva Agreement and calling it "the Pacific-led solution that will see Micronesian states represented at the forum this year."

But the latest turn of events indicates Pacific Forum leaders are scrambling to find a swift resolution ahead of the opening of one of the most significant leaders' meetings in recent history starting tomorrow.

A diplomatic source close to RNZ Pacific said Puna must address the issues raised by Kiribati as there are concerns about the role of the secretary-general being a matter of "pride".

The Suva Agreement

Tension between the Micronesian states and the office of the secretary-general of the PIF has been high since the Micronesian candidate for the top job narrowly missed out to Puna.

But the situation was improving following the High-Level Political Dialogue which resulted in the Suva Agreement on 6 June.

The agreement engineered by forum chair Bainimarama was tweaked by PIFS Senior Officials meeting earlier last week and approved by the Forum Foreign Ministers on Friday to be tabled for sign off at the Leaders Retreat on Thursday.

In the Suva Agreement, the secretary-general's term is to be extended from three to five years and Puna would continue till 2024.

Then, unlike every other previous secretary-general in recent times, he is to step down without seeking re-election to make way for a Micronesian candidate.

Current Marshallese Ambassador to the United States and dual Palauan citizen Gerald Zackios was the Micronesian state's nominee to the position of the forum secretary-general at the last vote of the Leaders Retreat in Tuvalu in 2019.

Also in the agreement is the induction of recruitment procedures for the top job to formalise the 'Gentlemen's Agreement' so the job rotates among the three sub-regions.

To ensure equal representation, an additional deputy secretary-general position is to be created and filled by other candidates to ensure each region can be represented all the time in the Forum Secretariat.

Additionally, Micronesia has asked that the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner (OPOC), a position also held by the PIFS secretary-general and housed in Suva, is to be moved to a Micronesian state along with a new forum sub regional office.

The other major CROP agency, the Pacific Community, has a Micronesian regional office in Pohnpei.