By Nic Maclellan in Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Meeting in Cook Islands, Pacific Islands Forum leaders confirmed former President of Nauru Baron Waqa as the next Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat, taking over from Henry Puna in 2024.

A major focus of the annual summit, hosted by Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, was the endorsement of a detailed implementation plan for the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, a regional framework adopted at last year’s summit in Suva.

As Forum chair, Brown said the implementation plan “articulates the specific goals, outcomes and regional collective actions across the thematic areas of our 2050 strategy. We also endorsed the Pacific Partnerships for Prosperity as a political prioritisation process to mobilise resources and to empower our specific people to bring about transformational change through national and regional development.”

The decision on the new Secretary General was not without controversy, even though the outcome was a reaffirmation of a decision taken at last February’s Special Leaders Retreat. When the issue of process around the selection of the Secretary General was raised in plenary on Wednesday, current Nauru President David Adeang walked out of the meeting. Adeang did not travel to Aitutaki for Thursday’s leaders’ retreat, flying home that day. Nauru’s perspectives were apparently carried into the retreat by other members of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit.

Seventeen out of 18 Forum members then endorsed and adopted a series of declarations and agreements, including statements on statehood and climate change and the legal declaration of a major new regional financing mechanism – the Pacific Resilience Facility (PRF).

They also endorsed a revitalised ‘Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration’ (first adopted at the last Cook Islands Forum in 2012. The leaders reaffirmed “commitment to gender equality in the region and recognise the responsibility and importance of both men and women working towards the leaders 2050 vision.”

Jacqui Berrell, advisor to the SPC’s ‘Pacific Women Lead’ program, responded: “Great to see Pacific Leaders have endorsed the revitalised Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration. Now for the hard work – converting the declaration into action!”

Climate and Environment

Addressing climate change, “leaders committed to the transition away from coal, oil and gas in our energy systems, in line with IPPC pathways for limiting global average temperatures to 1.5c above pre-industrial levels with a peak of fossil fuel consumption in the near term.” They committed to “implementing the Paris Agreement, acting on the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report, which represents the most comprehensive and robust assessment of climate change science.”

Last March, six Forum Island countries adopted the ‘Port Vila Call for a Just Transition towards a Fossil Fuel-Free Pacific’. Civil society groups had wanted endorsement of this initiative, pushing for more urgent action by the largest Forum member, Australia. But Canberra feels that its current commitments are enough, and the final wording if the communique gives them an easy out: “Leaders aspire to a just and equitable transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific, acknowledging that the pathway is not immediate nor is it one size fits all.”

Lavatenalagi Seru, Regional Coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN) said: “The Leader’s decision to welcome the aspiration for a just and equitable transition to a fossil fuel-free Pacific, and the commitment made to transition away from coal, oil, and gas in our energy systems with a peak of fossil fuel consumption in the near term in line with the 1.5°C limit, and without abatement loopholes is welcomed. However this falls short of the ambition required to save our islands, peoples and communities from the unprecedented climate impacts. Pacific leaders have missed an opportunity to demonstrate genuine commitment instead, opting for an ‘aspirational’ rhetoric.”

Despite this, the final communique calls on all development partners “to provide substantially greater levels of climate finance, technology and capacity to accelerate decarbonisation

in the Blue Pacific.” Echoing the existing Pacific Oceans Commissioner, leaders also agreed to begin a process “to establish a regional ‘Energy Commissioner for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific’, with scope to be agreed as part of the discussions in the Review of the Regional Architecture.”

The debate around deep-sea mining (DSM) has been a central feature of this week’s meeting, with Forum Chair Mark Brown and incoming Secretary General Baron Waqa both strong supporters. Many other Forum members – such as Palau, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Fiji and Vanuatu – have called for a moratorium on exploitation of ocean minerals. Given this difference, the leaders agreed to “respect the diversity of members positions on DSM development and sovereign decision making.”

Recognising the need to keep taking about the issue, they reaffirmed their “collective commitment to health and resilience of Blue Pacific”, and announced plans for a Forum Talanoa Dialogue on DSM, to be organised next year by the Forum Secretariat.

Leaders remained committed to ongoing monitoring of Japan’s program to dump ALPS treated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific from the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactor. Japan has already commenced the ocean discharge, but the Forum communique stressed the importance that “this is transgenerational and possibly transboundary issue, in context of region’s nuclear testing legacy”, emphasising their priorities of “international consultation, international law and scientific, independent and verifiable assessment.”

The leaders discussed the need to build regional scientific capacity and monitoring. They will continue to lobby Japan on the issue, seeking to make it a standing agenda item at the regular Japan-Pacific PALM summits, and calling for annual political dialogue with Japan to ascertain safety issues, alongside ongoing independent IAEA monitoring.

Security and self-determination

Later this month in New Caledonia, there will be further talks on political status, as France’s Overseas Minister arrives for talks with supporters and opponents of independence. At the Forum, President Louis Mapou briefed leaders about current development, and the final communique “encouraged the Forum ministerial committee to continue monitoring the self-determination process in line with recommendations from PIF 2021 observer mission” (a report on the third referendum on self-determination welcomed by leaders last year in Suva).

Endorsing an earlier decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), the Forum reaffirmed “recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua (Papua)”, recalled the need for open and transparent dialogue with Indonesia and appointed Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and his PNG counterpart James Marape as envoys “to facilitate a dialogue with Indonesia on areas of shared interest.”

Rabuka had earlier floated an idea for a regional Zone of Peace, but leaders agreed simply to develop a concept, to be discussed at the next summit in 2024, to be hosted by the Kingdom of Tonga.

A more fundamental agreement came as Tuvalu ceded some sovereignty to strike a migration and security deal with Australia. After the leaders’ retreat, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano announced a major new treaty, the Falepili Union, which will create a “special mobility pathway” and visa for 280 Tuvaluan citizens each year to gain permanent residency in Australia, with rights to live, study and work. This follows the recent announcement of Australia’s Pacific Engagement Visa (PEV)

However the arrangement comes with strings. Tuvalu will be required to “mutually agree with Australia” if it wants to negotiate a security agreement with another country. ‘Security’ is very broadly defined to include “defence, policing, border protection, cybersecurity and critical infrastructure, including ports, telecommunications and energy infrastructure.”

Australia pledges in turn to respond to major natural disasters, pandemics or “military aggression against Tuvalu” (from whom?), in an effort to close the door on Chinese influence (even though Funafuti already has diplomatic relations with Taiwan).

Prime Minister Albanese said: “With the Pacific the best placed to support the Pacific’s own security, Australia and Tuvalu will also mutually agree cooperation with other countries in Tuvalu’s security sectors”, opening the way for greater role from AUKUS or France.

The Australian Prime Minister will be well pleased by support for AUKUS from fellow Pacific leaders. The final communique “welcomed the transparency of Australia’s efforts and commitment to compliance with international law, in particular with the NPT, the Rarotonga Treaty and IAEA safeguards.”

However, the United States is the only major nuclear weapons state that has failed to ratify the three protocols of the Treaty of Rarotonga for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ). At their retreat, “leaders urged the United States to ratify the treaty protocols as soon as possible, and in accordance with the latest call made under the 2nd US-Pacific Statement on Reaffirming US-Pacific Partnership of 25 September 2023.”

Earlier in the day Albanese was reluctant to publicly call on his AUKUS partner to ratify the Treaty protocols. He told Islands Business that “I endorse the US as a sovereign nation that has the right to determine its own position. I don’t think it needs advice from me. We support the Treaty of Rarotonga. All of our activity is consistent with it.”