MSG Summits aims ‘to restructure the Pacific landscape' with supports for Kanak and West Papuan Self-determination

As the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) celebrates its 25th anniversary, last month’s MSG Summit in New Caledonia showcased renewed purpose and a range of initiatives by the largest islands nations. The outgoing MSG chair, Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, told the summit: “I believe that MSG solidarity has never been stronger. We are taking bold steps to restructure the landscape of the Pacific to better suit the needs and aspirations of our people. We are opening up possibilities and creating opportunities that other regional organisations have not .” The five MSG members include Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, together with the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), the coalition of parties calling for independence in New Caledonia.

The issue of self-determination in New Caledonia and West Papua was highlighted on the 19th summit agenda (with Bougainville likely to raise its profile in the coming years). MSG leaders also addressed initiatives in regional co-ordination, environment policy and trade between Melanesian nations. Vanuatu Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil proclaimed: “I am proud that the MSG Trade Agreement is the only active trading agreement in our region,” in sharp contrast to the drawn-out PACER-Plus and EPA trade negotiations.

With Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu trading duty-free under the MSG Trade Agreement since January 2013, the summit discussed increased inter-island labour mobility and the concept of an MSG Stock Exchange to facilitate the movement of capital across MSG borders. Leaders received the report of an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) led by Fijian statesman Kaliopate Tavola, looking at the successes and challenges of the past, and mapping priorities for the MSG’s future. The increased profile and partnerships of the sub-regional organisation were highlighted by Fiji’s Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, who stated that the MSG is poised to take “a quantum leap” into the future. Behind the public expressions of solidarity, however, there were also tensions that will cause ongoing challenges for Peter Forau, Director-General of the MSG Secretariat in Port Vila. A notable absence from the summit was PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato, who were leading a large delegation of ministers, officials and businesspeople to Indonesia. Their presence in Jakarta as the MSG debated West Papua shows the priority given to relations with PNG’s powerful neighbour. Even though PNG Deputy Prime Minister Leo Dion and Ambassador to Fiji Peter Efeare carried Port Moresby’s views into the summit, O’Neill’s absence was noticeable on several occasions, including the closing ceremony where Papua New Guinea was not represented.

Fiji too has stronger ties to Jakarta, after it exchanged ambassadors with Indonesia and welcomed the Asian power as an observer as Suva hosted the previous MSG summit in 2011. To the disquiet of some delegates, Fiji arrived with a roadmap to drive the West Papua debate, following a meeting held in Nadi in early June between Prime Minister Bainimarama and Djoko Suyanto, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Legal, Political and Security Affairs and a former commander of Indonesia’s armed forces. Bainimarama received a warm welcome at the opening ceremony, winning applause for his role as MSG chair over the last two years. However, some participants expressed concerns over Fiji’s flawed transition to parliamentary elections. In a public lecture, Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare stated that the political situation in Fiji continues to test MSG solidarity “with a real risk of a chasm developing between MSG members if we are not careful.”

Solidarity with the Kanaks

As one of the signatories to the original MSG Agreement, Somare attended the summit as a guest of honour. He was joined by Vanuatu’s Ham Lini, representing the family of the late Walter Hayde Lini (the summit communique announced a Jubilee Scholarship Scheme in the name of the MSG’s founding member, who led Vanuatu to independence in 1980). Former President of French Polynesia Oscar Manutahi Temaru was also received with plaudits after he lost the battle but won the war—losing the recent election to long-time rival Gaston Flosse but finally achieving his goal of re-inscribing Maohi Nui on the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories. Temaru’s call for self-determination in the French Pacific echoed across the week—the central feature of the summit was the proud re-affirmation of MSG support for the FLNKS and the Kanak independence struggle. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Matignon-Oudinot Accords, which ended the armed conflict that raged across New Caledonia between 1984 and 1988. The MSG too celebrates 25 years since it was founded in March 1988, jafter years of co-operation between Melanesian leaders in support of Kanak independence. Today, representatives of the Kanak movement sit alongside opponents of independence in the multi-party government of New Caledonia. But the FLNKS continues to look for solidarity from neighbouring Melanesian countries as a key element of their campaign for decolonisation. In order to link with local Kanak communities, the MSG summit was spread across all three provinces in New Caledonia, with senior officials meeting in the northern town of Pweedi Wimia (Poindimie), foreign ministers gathering on Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, while the final summit opened in the southern capital Noumea. In Lifou, Caroline Machoro-Reignier of the FLNKS took over as chair of the MSG Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM). She is the first woman to hold the post and noted: “This appointment is a sign Melanesian women are ready to take their place as leaders.” Under its Parity Law, New Caledonia’s electoral system is designed to ensure that half the elected members of the provincial assemblies and Congress are women—a far cry from other Melanesian nations where women are barely represented in national parliaments.
FLNKS spokesperson Victor Tutugoro will serve as MSG chair over the next two years, taking the role at a crucial time. After elections in May 2014 for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and Congress, the incoming parliamentarians must decide whether to proceed to a referendum on self-determination before 2018. The MSG summit opening was broadcast live on local TV and radio, but detailed newspaper coverage was sparse and local politics intruded. Calédonie Ensemble leader Philippe Gomes, who serves as New Caledonia’s representative in the French National assembly, unsuccessfully lobbied the French Foreign Minister to refuse a visa to Fijian PM Bainimarama. The Speaker of New Caledonia’s Congress Gerard Poadja, a member of Gomes’ anti-independence party, also boycotted the signing of an agreement between the Congress and the MSG Secretariat in Port Vila (The agreement includes 25 million French Pacific francs for the secretariat, and was initiated and signed by the Deputy Speaker of the Congress Roch Wamytan, who previously served as MSG chair in 2001).

Some anti-independence leaders called for the FLNKS to be replaced by the Government of New Caledonia as the official MSG representative. But New Caledonia’s President Harold Martin told ISLANDS BUSINESS he was happy to work under the current arrangement. “Since the 2007 Forum in Tonga, I’ve been saying that the government of New Caledonia would like to represent our nation as a full member of both the Forum and the MSG,” he said. “But we’re in the Pacific and it takes some time. Unlike my predecessor, I am quite reserved on this matter and we await the decision of the FLNKS about when the government could take a greater role in the MSG.”

Debate over West Papua

The other high profile issue was West Papua, with the FLNKS formally inviting the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) to attend the summit. A five-person delegation led by WPNCL Vice President John Otto Ondawame and Secretary-General Rex Rumakiek arrived to lobby support of their bid for MSG membership, after a formal application was lodged with the MSG Secretariat last March. Other activists from the “Federal Republic of West Papua”, led by Jacob Rumbiak, also arrived in the New Caledonian capital, while Indonesia sent a large delegation to press its case, including former independence activists Franz Albert Joku and Nick Messet. With PNG and Fiji officials and ministers highlighting the “sensitive” and “complex” nature of their relationship with Indonesia, the FLNKS and Vanuatu expressed stronger public support for the West Papuan cause. “If this issue came up today within the MSG, it’s because the FLNKS requested it,” Machoro-Reignier said. “We asked the representatives of West Papua to come to New Caledonia to explain the situation to us. “We cannot just leave the issue aside, with all the exactions, the violations of human rights that West Papua is suffering.”

Earlier this year, the new government in Vanuatu led by Moana Carcasses Kalosil overturned close ties with Jakarta established by former Prime Minister Sato Kilman. In his address to the summit, Carcasses stated that West Papua’s cries for freedom “have been bluntly denied by many rich and wealthy countries including the United Nations for many I say that we as brothers must stand up for them. The epicentre of support for the advocacy for West Papuan self-determination must begin in this region, Melanesia.” After extensive debate and lobbying in the corridors, MSG leaders agreed to defer a decision on the West Papua membership application until after an official visit to Jakarta and Jayapura later this year. Fiji will lead the MSG ministerial mission, which must report back to the leaders within six months. In Lifou, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Edward Natapei told ISLANDS BUSINESS that his government accepted the consensus decision on the mission.

“Our reaction follows the majority in the meeting. It seems we are outnumbered, so we have to comply with the majority. I’m happy with that decision,” he said. “What we want is some timelines to ensure this issue is going to be dealt with within this year.”

WPNCL’s Ondawame expressed disappointment that the membership application was delayed, arguing that the Indonesian government and military would work to stage-manage the MSG mission. However, he said he valued the opportunity to address the summit plenary and highlighted positive commitments by the MSG leaders.

In unprecedented language, the final communique supported “the inalienable rights of the people of West Papua towards self-determination” and criticised “human rights violations and other forms of atrocities relating to the West Papuan people.”

Indonesia’s case was not helped by a breach of protocol during the leaders retreat at Escapade Island Resort. Members of the Indonesian delegation travelled by boat to the island where MSG leaders were meeting. A member of the delegation confirmed to ISLANDS BUSINESS that the incident had taken place, but described it as an “unfortunate step” after the delegation “possibly tried to communicate with the leaders—but I think they chose the wrong time.”

Beyond the high-profile debates, the summit covered a range of issues including reports from the March 2012 MSG Environment and Climate Change Conference and the May 2012 MSG Trade Ministers Meeting. Leaders agreed to draft legal text for a third phase of the MSG Trade Agreement, to extend negotiations beyond trade in goods into services and investment. The leaders signed agreements affecting justice and legal relations between MSG member countries, including a Memorandum on Police Co-operation, a Treaty on Custody and Child Maintenance and a Treaty on the Enforcement of Foreign Judicial Rulings. They also endorsed the concept of an MSG Department of Peace-Keeping Operations (DPKO).

Drawing on his expertise as a former foreign minister and ambassador, Tavola was named as an MSG High Level Representative for the next two years. Tavola told ISLANDS BUSINESS he was awaiting a formal terms of reference, but said: “It’s obviously a kind of roving ambassadorial role. The High Representative will work on instructions and mandate from the leaders, especially to promote what the MSG is all about, increase the partnerships that MSG can have with other development partners and donors and address the possibility of the MSG accessing some of the European Development Fund (EDF) allocations.”

MSG leaders old and new came away from the summit with renewed purpose, with Somare calling on member states to employ their size and strength to the service of the region: “An MSG without the Pacific is the weaker, just as a Pacific without the MSG is the poorer.” [IslandBusiness]
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