Five island nations are officially withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum amid growing resentment over the organization's reneging on a "gentlemen's agreement" to rotate leadership appointment among member countries.
The Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Kiribati, have jointly agreed to initiate the formal process of withdrawal from the Forum during a virtual convening of the Micronesian Presidents Summit Monday.
The move stemmed from the appointment of Cook Islands former Prime Minister Henry Puna as secretary general of the Forum last week. He will officially take the Forum's helm in April, succeeding Dame Meg Taylor, a lawyer and diplomat from Papua New Guinea.
Micronesian countries have argued that the post should have gone to their candidate, Marshall Islands' diplomat Gerald Zackios.
Palau President Surnagel Whipps Jr. said the Forum cannot have a functional regional organization "that just completely disregards a third of its membership."
In an interview with Radio Australia last week, FSM President David Panuelo said Micronesian countries expected Zackios' appointment based on an unwritten “gentleman's agreement” that the role be rotated by sub-region and it was Micronesia's turn.
"I think this has been the way it was selected in the past or in some of the past selections of the Secretary General post, and so Gerald [Zackios] is a very qualified individual," Panuelo said.
In Nauru, President Lionel Aingimea said the decision to leave the Forum was “quite difficult” and entailed "a lot of emotion" considering that Nauru was one of the seven founding members.
“Because we had to examine a lot of things. This was not a decision that was taken lightly," Aingimea said.
He said Nauru’s bilateral relationships with the Pacific countries including Fiji, other regional agencies, donor partners and international bodies such as the European Union and the United Nations that are based in Fiji will remain the same.
On Monday, the Palau National Congress expressed support for Whipps' decision to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum.
"There is no benefit to the Micronesian members remaining in the Pacific Island Forum if the gentleman's agreement is not honored," the Palau National Congress said in a statement.
Last week, Whipps sent a diplomatic note advising Fiji of Palau's decision to close its embassy in protest over the Forum's leadership appointment.
"A lot of people are expressing surprise, but to me we are just doing exactly what was previously stated," Whipp said in a statement Monday. "Palau has had an election since the Mekreos Communique, so I was not personally a signatory, but just because Palau got a new president does not mean we forgot our commitments. All five Micronesian countries said they would leave the PIF if it continued to ignore them. So now we are doing exactly what we said."
The process to withdraw membership from the Forum will take legal effect in one year. The year will enable the Micronesia leaders to satisfy their own internal procedures and laws to complete the process which is expected to involve a number of negotiations and discussions.
The Forum's chair stood by the Forum leaders' decision to pick Puna.
"We have upheld our principles and values as characterized through the Pacific Way. Central to our Pacific Way is our values of the collective good, maintaining relationships, talanoa and mutual respect," the chair said in a statement Feb. 6. "In spite of the difficulty of the discussion and the differing views, I am pleased that my colleague leaders and I were able to dialogue and agree on a process at our meeting to finalize this appointment."
The Pacific Islands Forum is an inter-governmental organization that aims to enhance cooperation between countries and territories of the Pacific Ocean, including formation of a trade bloc and regional peacekeeping operations.
Founded in 1971, the organization was originally called the South Pacific Forum. In 1999, it was renamed "Pacific Islands Forum" so as to be more inclusive of the Forum's Oceania-spanning membership of both north and south Pacific island countries.
Members include it comprises 18 members: Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.