The 2013 Pacific Islands Forum starts today and the host, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, wants climate change to be the major focus, naming the theme of the leaders' summit as 'Marshalling the Pacific Response to the Climate Challenge'. As Marshall Islands Senator Tony de Brum explains in the video interview I recorded with him in July (above), the Marshall Islands wants the Forum to produce the Majuro Declaration, meant to inspire a new wave of action on climate change, the principal security threat to the region.
This is a worthy ambition for the tiny Marshall Islands (pop 68,000), which feels the effects of climate change keenly. But it has struck some bad luck with timing. Capturing the world's attention is likely to be much more difficult than the Forum's leaders found in the last two years. Last year's summit in the Cook Islands attracted international interest because US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took part, feeding speculation that the US was anxious about the rise of China's influence in the Pacific. The 2011 summit in Auckland drew UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and EU President Barroso.
But the coincidence of the timing of the Pacific Islands Forum with the G20 Summit in St Petersburg means the Marshall Islands is unlikely to attract high profile international leaders to Majuro. The pre-occupation of the world's major powers with the situation in Syria won't help either.
Even the Australian prime minister will be sending his regrets because of the 7 September federal election. Although Australia will still be represented by a minister, the caretaker conventions of the campaign period mean Australia's voice at the summit will be more restrained than usual.
One matter the Australian head of delegation will promote, however, is Australia's hosting of the G20 leaders' summit in Brisbane next year. It is the privilege of the G20 host to invite observers, which may allow one or more Pacific Island countries to attend the summit and permit Australia to advocate for issues that are important to the Pacific.
The Forum has succeeded in at least capturing the attention of the European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, who will go to Majuro. She believes the Pacific Islands Forum can remind the world that it must get its act together and refocus on urgent actions.
The Forum might be more effective in global advocacy if it had its own house in order. As Sandra Tarte's post pointed out, the region's leaders will be presented with evidence from the recently completed review of the Pacific Plan. The take-out from the review is that the Pacific Islands Forum has become separated from its raison d’étre – its political leadership – and Forum leaders themselves have failed to reflect the political will of their people onto the regional agenda. The Review found that the Forum tends to work on issues for which it can attract donor funding rather than issues that are important to the region's political leaders or the people of the region.
Chair of the Review Team Sir Mekere Morauta cautioned that rising inequality, poverty and difficulties adjusting to the various facets of modernity were particular challenges that the region's institutions needed to tackle, implying that the Forum's response to these issues was inadequate.
These issues don't easily lend themselves to the neat action plans for the region's civil servants of the kind the Forum's communiques have favoured in the past. It is not easy to build an advocacy campaign around them in the way one has been built around the existential threat of climate change. But these challenges are every bit as serious as climate change and arguably are having a bigger impact on hundreds of thousands of Pacific Islanders.
The region's premier institution is at risk of becoming an anachronism if it fails to inspire the political will to respond to a rapidly changing social, economic and political context.
The proposed Majuro Declaration will rightly demand more action from big countries on reducing carbon emissions. But action on the other serious challenges facing the Pacific islands demands the urgent attention of the region itself. Whether the Forum continues to stumble or again becomes the region's agenda setter depends entirely on the vision and commitment of its leaders.