Fiji’s flag is still flying at Pacific Islands Forum venues, but it remains suspended from the region’s most important grouping after reneging on a promise to hold elections.
Forum chair Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei has said that Fiji — which has torn up its constitution and dismissed the judiciary since military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in 2006 — would be discussed at a picturesque private beachside resort north of the capital Port Vila.
Australia and NZ support suspension
Australia and New Zealand have strongly supported Fiji’s suspension from the grouping, but its absence has prompted questions about the forum’s relevance and its ability to help lift Pacific islanders out of poverty.
“Fiji is an important regional actor in the Pacific because of its traditional role, because of its geographic location, because it is one of the larger islands in population and economy,” Christian Leffler, head of the EU delegation to the forum, told reporters.
“When Fiji is not participating fully in regional cooperation… as witnessed by their absence from this Pacific Islands Forum meeting, that also weakens the possibility to take the region forward.”
Other leaders did not make it
Bainimarama is not the only leader absent from the annual two-day meeting of Pacific nations, which began Wednesday.
Australia, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu have sent foreign ministers or senior envoys as they face elections at home, while Papua New Guinea’s leader Michael Somare has excused himself to confront domestic issues.
Those leaders who did make it to Havannah Resort on the main island of Efate were greeted by Natapei as the waves gently lapped on the white sands of the beach below.
The forum includes some of the world’s smallest and poorest countries, but Vanuatu also boasts pristine blue waters teeming with fish and fringed by tropical blooms.
“It helps a lot because when you look at people in the country with very little, nothing in their pockets, but they still smile and enjoy themselves, it makes it easier for a leader,” Natapei told reporters.
“They don’t worry about resources and material things.”
Climate change ‘highest priority’
Palau President Johnson Toribiong said climate change was the highest priority for smaller Pacific island states which fear rising sea levels caused by higher temperatures could force evacuations.
“We are not very well versed on the scientific aspects of the issue,” he told AFP, adding that this meant that leaders wanted to examine the problem from a worst-case scenario.
“I think we should take the most cautious and conservative approach ensuring that at least we don’t feel that we have dropped the ball,” he said.
“We have to break the talk barrier… it should not stop the small island states from raising their hands and stomping their feet and speaking out loud.”
Toribiong said that the 40-year-old Pacific Islands Forum, which groups a diverse 16 nations, promoted a process for the region to speak “with one voice”.