BY PHIL MERCER – The political situation in Fiji and the threat of sea level rises to low-lying communities have been the main focus of the Pacific Islands Forum at its annual summit in New Zealand. The region’s main political bloc will also discuss economic reform, although there has been some disagreement about the treatment of Fiji, which was suspended by the forum following a military coup in 2006.
Climate change, political instability and economic reforms are dominating discussions at the annual Pacific Islands Forum being held this year in Auckland, New Zealand.
The president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, says his low-lying nation is being slowly engulfed as global warming lifted sea levels, forcing the government of the archipelago that straddles the equator to consider moving its 100,000-strong population onto man-made floating islands.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is attending the meeting. He says the survival of Pacific Island countries is threatened by climate change.
Ban also commented on possible action regarding alleged human rights abuses in Fiji, following its 2006 military coup.
“I already expect that the member states of the United Nations may raise this issue to a human rights council and, if there is a decision, I can of course ask my high commissioner for human rights to dispatch a fact-finding mission there,” he said.
Kiribati has called for Fiji to be reinstated to the 16-nation forum, insisting that its expulsion two years ago, in the wake of the military coup was achieving nothing.
However, regional heavyweights Australia and New Zealand believe that Fiji’s army-led government should remain isolated until it agrees to hold new elections.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said there is still majority support for keeping the ban.
“It is an issue that, from time to time, comes up in conversation and last night, as I say, we had an extensive conversation about that,” said Key. “But leaders were, in my view, united in their view actually that Fiji needs to demonstrate that it is going to hold free and fair elections in due course. Unless they do that then we believe the exclusion from the Pacific forum is the right course of action to take.”
The host of this year’s event, New Zealand, wants to press ahead with economic reform. Its foreign minister, Murray McCully, has said that development in areas such as fishing and tourism is being held back by governments that were “too slow, too bureaucratic and too cumbersome”.
McCully also says a lack of education was hampering economic growth in the Pacific. He notes that about 40 percent of children in island nations did not complete primary school.
The Pacific Island Forum has 16 members. Australia, with a population of 22 million people is by far the biggest. Niue, with about 1,600 inhabitants, is one of the smallest. Tiny Nauru occupies just 21 square kilometers of land.
This year’s meeting coincides with the start of the Rugby Union World Cup in New Zealand. It is expected to attract a host of high-profile spectators. The guest list is also thought to include the British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.