By Jasmine Stole Weiss
They may have stepped out of the political limelight, but former Pacific island leaders recognize that the political process is a never-ending affair and their job is never finished.
The wisdom of elder statesmen, whose voices are held in high esteem in every island society, is particularly paramount today as the region wrestles with existential threats— climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic— that are compounded by regional division. Some island nations and territories that are at the junction of political changes grapple with internal conflicts against the backdrop of the region’s growing significance to the global order.
Former island leaders are attempting to step in, offering their wisdom and expertise in hopes of maintaining regional stability.
“There are enough responsibilities out there to be a part of the solutions needed to combat the challenges facing all of us in the Pacific,” said former Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr., a member of the newly formed Pacific Elders’ Voice.
The group, which consists of a Who’s Who of the Pacific, including Remenegesau, former Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, former Kiribati President Anote Tong, former Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, former Guam delegate and former University of Guam president Robert Underwood and former Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor.
Though some have retired from politics, former leaders “still have so much to contribute,” said Heine, who is now a member of the Marshall Islands Parliament.
They seek to provide high-level, independent Pacific perspectives on issues that affect islanders.
“This platform provides a vehicle to make objective, transparent and fearless statements which can hopefully complement government views and that of civil society, youth and other groups in the region,” Heine said.
PEV, which was formed four months ago, seeks to present bold advocacy to tackle critical issues. “Sometimes, Pacific leaders are too pacified and too silent out of respect and not wanting to offend anybody, but when people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake, we all need to step up to the plate,” Remengesau said.
Heine said the group seeks a better, more sustainable future for the next generation.
The group’s purpose, she added, is to draw on “our collective experience and wisdom to provide constructive thought leadership, perspectives and guidance to strengthen our region’s resilience to current and future environmental, security and human rights threats and opportunities facing the Pacific.”
“We thought that this platform could be used to articulate our collective views on a range of issues important for and to the region,” Heine said.
Issues like climate change and global warming, human rights, food security, ocean resource management and sustainability, and more, are among the most pressing issues the PEV is tracking.
In Marshall Islands, claims for environmental and health damage caused by dozens of nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s remain an unfinished business.
And while is advocating for a nuclear-free zone, the region now has to contend with the Australia-United Kingdom-United States trilateral treaty that requires the development of nuclear submarines for Australia.
“I believe that this powerful, experienced voice is necessary at this time because of the nature of the existential threats ranging from climate change to strategic military competition in the islands of the Pacific,” Underwood said. “The nature of these challenges and the fact that they originate from external forces make consistent and bold statements necessary if we are not to experience a new era of external domination and a kind of 21st-century colonialism.”
The PEV members’ expertise in the political landscape was drawn from their many years of serving their respective island communities in elected positions.
“Some of the past leaders, who once were the active voices, have retired but still have so much to contribute,” Heine said. “This platform provides a vehicle to make objective, transparent and fearless statements which can hopefully complement government views and that of civil society, youth and other groups in the region.”
Remengesau added that life after politics doesn’t mean one stops caring. “Our common cultural value is that a big load is lightened up when more people carry it,” Remengesau said. “We all can play a part to work with those in the government, private sector, civil society and hopefully ensure the needed actions.”
So far, the Pacific Elders have urged the world to take urgent and rapid action to mitigate the predicted earth-shattering effects of climate change. The Pacific Elders encouraged G20 leaders to commit to the New Marshall Plan for Climate Change Action.
The group has yet to meet face-to-face. Nonetheless, the Pacific Elders saw that there was a great need for a collective voice.
Heine said the group is currently supported by a few enthusiasts who are providing their time and energy on a pro bono basis. The ultimate goal is to convert the group into a properly funded secretariat. “Hence the need for some philanthropists and foundations who can help with financial support,” she said.
But the group is taking a cautious move. “We are careful not to approach donors, which could inhibit our ability to make independent and courageous comments. So anyone or any organization that sees value in our work would be welcome to assist,” Heine said.
In addition to supporting Pacific states in their efforts to achieve resilience to environmental, security and human rights threats, the group’s priorities are to provide a space for the voice of Pacific Elders to foster, harness and amplify Pacific voices, thought leadership, and high-quality research; recommend actionable policy options and practical reform ideas on matters facing the region; and participate in high-level diplomacy through engagements and public statements in service of the region and on those global issues that affect it.
The founding members landed on the name “Pacific Elders Voice” after discussions among themselves.
“Many thought ‘eminent’ is more appropriate,” Heine said of the group’s name. “But in our own Pacific way of doing things, we did not want to sound too self-praising. Also, we want to be a voice and ‘elders’ gives a connotation of wisdom, derived from reason and thinking.”