By Nic Maclellan in Honiara
Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Milner Tozaka welcomed Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) delegations to Honiara, as MSG Foreign Ministers met in the lead up to this week’s MSG leaders’ summit.
Stating that “a strong and vibrant Melanesia is our objective,” Tozaka took over as chair the MSG Foreign Ministers Meeting from Caroline Machoro-Reignier of New Caledonia’s FLNKS independence movement.
In the opening ceremony, MSG Secretariat Director General Peter Forau noted a series of achievements since the last regional summit, including extensive work for the expansion of the MSG Trade Agreement, the MSG’s monitoring mission for the September 2014 national elections in Fiji, and the successful 5th Melanesian Festival of the Arts, held in Papua New Guinea.
The last MSG summit in Noumea in 2013 approved a “2038 Prosperity for All Plan”, charting the next 25 years of economic, social and environmental development across Melanesia. After two years of preparation by the MSG Secretariat in Port Vila, an implementation plan for this overarching strategy will be presented to leaders for endorsement this week.
The MSG Secretariat has also completed studies to address the economic vulnerability of MSG member states, highlighted by the devastation of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. These include studies for an Emergency Stabilisation Fund, and a scoping study on an MSG Development and Investment Fund.
Forau also noted that the issue of West Papua looms large on this week’s agenda, stating: “The world and our region are looking at us.”
In his opening address, Foreign Minister Tozaka noted that according to the Establishment Agreement of the MSG, “decisions are based on consensus. This means nothing is agreed unless everyone agrees.”
This art of consensus building will be sorely tested during this week’s crucial debate on West Papua. In the weeks leading up to the summit, statements from MSG leaders have highlighted clear divisions over relations with Indonesia and the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) – a coalition of West Papuan nationalist organisations that is seeking membership of the MSG.
Later this week, MSG leaders will have to decide on applications from Jakarta to upgrade its 2011 observer status to associate member, as well as the ULM’s bid for full membership. As delegations continue to arrive in Honiara, there is still lots of lobbying in the corridors.
As Chair of the FMM, Tozaka briefly opened Monday’s meeting to allow a delegation from the ULM to present a petition to the assembled ministers and officials. The petition, with 150,000 signatures collected across West Papua over the last four months, endorses the ULMWP’s membership bid.
ULM spokesperson Benny Wenda said the petition, collected by church, student, women’s and political groups, was received with “warm hearts” by the MSG foreign ministers.
“Today is a historic day, as the leaders have allowed us to bring these petitions on behalf of the people of West Papua,” he said. “We hope now the leaders can decide on our future.”
With an Indonesian delegation also present in Honiara to press Jakarta’s case, there will be further debate on the membership applications in coming days. The final decision will be taken by the MSG leaders, including Fiji’s Voreqe Bainimarama, PNG’s Peter O’Neill and New Caledonia’s Victor Tutugoro, who are scheduled to arrive in Honiara before Wednesday’s official opening of the leaders’ summit.