The collapse of a key Pacific diplomatic body seems to have been averted at the last minute, with Micronesian countries “temporarily” rescinding their withdrawal.
The results of an acrimonious leadership contest last February had threatened to shatter the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).
Disappointed by the outcome of the election for the Forum’s top job, Micronesian nations gave themselves a timetable of one year for them to complete the process.
But days before before they were due to formally quit the bloc over the selection of the PIF’s next secretary-general, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia said the move had been paused.
“The leaders… having discussed specific substantive reforms of the Pacific Islands Forum and its leadership, and on the basis of consensus, have agreed to temporarily rescind their withdrawal from the Pacific Island Forum,” FSM President David Panuelo said in a brief statement.
It remains unclear exactly what those reforms were.
There are three regional groupings that make up the Pacific Islands region — Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.
The Micronesian nations in PIF — Palau, Nauru Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) — have sometimes complained they are relegated to the organisation’s outer.
The issues came to a head early last February when former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna won a ballot by one vote (9–8) to become the new secretary-general of PIF.
He had edged out the Marshall Islands’ Gerald Zackios, who had been backed by five nations from Micronesia.
The result bitterly disappointed Micronesian leaders, who had insisted it was their turn to select a new secretary-general under a “gentleman’s agreement”.
Micronesian leaders had previously declared they would leave the PIF if Zackios was not successful.
The first to move following Puna’s victory was Palau, which announcing it was quitting the body and shutting its embassy in Fiji.
At the time, Palau’s President Surangel Whipps told the ABC that Polynesian and Melanesian nations had “divided” the Pacific by refusing to make way for Zackios.
“The most important thing for any organisation is trust and integrity and when you’ve lost that it’s hard to bring people together,” he said.
While further details of the reasons behind the suspension of the withdrawal are yet to become known, at the time the Micronesians nations said they would leave the PIF, Whipps said there was a way to entice them back.
Whipps said South Pacific nations would have to convince Puna to make way for Zackios.
“Maybe our Pacific brothers did not understand how serious we were,” he said.
“There is a simple way to change things. You can ask our brother Puna to withdraw.
“That’s a solution. That’s a very simple solution to me,” he said.