Sir Michael on 25 years of MSG

Focus, Normal

The National, Monday June 24th, 2013

 FORMER PNG prime minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare (right) addressed the 25th meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in Noumea last Thursday. Among the many issues he raised, Sir Michael discussed the human rights abuse in West Papua and the need for the group to support Fiji to ensure it returned to a strong culture of enduring democracy.


POLITICAL and parliamentary instability in MSG countries continue to undermine our efforts in promoting our region as a region of opportunity, stability and prosperity.

More energy must be directed in the next 25 years towards strengthening our governance institutions and good governance processes.

It is worth clarifying, though, that in many instances in MSG, political and parliamentary instability occur as a result of the democratic process at play, in particular the exercise of democratic rights.  

They are not indicative of the absence of democracy in MSG but simply reflect symptoms of weak governance institutions and processes.

As a group, the West Papua issue will continue to test MSG’s commitment to defend and promote independence as the inalienable right of indigenous peoples of Melanesia as well as to promote their human rights.

There is strong and growing support among the MSG people for West Papua’s membership to MSG and West Papua’s aspirations to self-determination.

Obviously, the Papua New Guinea Government’s position on this issue will very much weigh on MSG’s considerations in terms of how it deals with West Papua.

For me, I believe that MSG should actively make representations to Indonesia to address the human rights abuses in West Papua.

MSG must also involve West Papua in some of MSG’s cultural events, sporting activities and technical skills exchanges.

West Papua, after all, has a significant Melanesian community. But should the MSG leaders decide on granting West Papua ‘membership’, in one form or another, it should be done only on the basis that it is a Melanesian community and not because MSG countries recognise West Papua as a sovereign independent state.

MSG already has a non-state entity as a member in FLNKS, a not too dissimilar arrangement can be found in Apec where Taiwan and Hong Kong, regarded by many as part of China, participate as partners in development with independent sovereign states.  

The point here is that we have to be inventive.

Again, should a decision be made for West Papua to be a ‘member’ of MSG, it is not hard to imagine this serving as a venue for both Indonesia and West Papua to dialogue and regularly brief MSG countries of developments in West Papua.

Fiji’s current political situation is another case that will continue to test MSG solidarity as a group.  It is no secret that regional decisions and approaches to Fiji have a caused polarisation of views in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).  

Even within our MSG grouping, I can sense a tenuous unity of purpose on Fiji. There is a real risk of a chasm developing between MSG members if we are not careful.

I have always maintained that Fiji requires our understanding and support. Time should not be the essence for Fiji to return to elective government but ensuring Fiji develops a strong culture of enduring democracy, with robust democratic institutions, is.

Melanesian values of dialogue and patience, although protracted in process, has the greatest potential to bring about the changes we want in Fiji.

This is in stark contrast to the effects that condescending tactics and heavy-handed punitive actions advocated by some have had on Fiji.

I would also suggest that the changing geo-political situation in the region is a result of this.

MSG must also resist the temptation of using high “moral ground” reasons to justify calls for it to criticise Fiji’s slow return to parliamentary democracy. 

Although pious principles are noble, they are very often void of reality on the ground.  

MSG needs to be pragmatic in its approach to Fiji.

With regards to the issue of nuclear testing, MSG will need to continue to be interested in the transhipment through our waters of nuclear weapons and nuclear waste material.

We must be vigilant over the mechanisms established to compensate coastal states in the event of disasters.  Even with all the advances made in technology, disasters will happen and we need to ensure provision of assistance is predictable, swift and adequate under these mechanisms.

The interest shown and the entry by non-traditional powers in our region will inevitably reconfigure the geo-political landscape and usher in new security challenges.

But the notion of security extends beyond the realms of external physical threats to territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Globalisation has given birth to new security issues. The resulting better communications, easier movement across national borders of capital, goods, services and persons, has brought along with it challenges in cybercrime, money laundering, illicit cross-border trade, human trafficking, health, etc.

Lack of food, absence of proper sanitation, inadequate housing and unemployment are security threats in themselves.

Another security issue concerns our porous borders. Lack of national capacity to undertake effective surveillance, means that our rich marine and land resources may be exploited in ways that are unsustainable.  Even if they are developed within the legal limits there is no guarantee that fish-catch data, forest-harvest figures and mineral-export statistics reveal the true picture, thus denying us optimum benefits from our resources.

These sets of challenges I have just described require us to address them collectively as MSG and as a region.  They know no borders.

Global warming and sea level rise is posing serious, if not imminent, danger to the very survival of our people on our coastlines and the low-lying islands in our region.

This threat scenario calls for MSG to commit itself, and lead the way, in undertaking sustainable development practices.

Having the largest landmass in the PIF region – 99% (excluding Australia and New Zealand) MSG countries have a moral duty to re-settle climate refugees from the other small island countries of the Pacific.

Our cooperation in trade and economic activities has become somewhat the talking point of many of our colleagues in the region.  And rightly so.  It is the only regional trading agreement that is working in the Pacific.

MSG must always remind itself of the initial cynicism which accompanied the reactions of many of our regional partners when we concluded a trading agreement with only three items to trade.

The announcement generated considerable scepticism.  Some, less generous, even suggested that the idea to trade with only three items was bordering on delusional.

I only belabour this point, not to disparage our critics, but to encourage us to draw inspiration from this experience as we embark on more enhanced cooperation and greater integration.  There is nothing wrong with having a dream.  Neither is it silly to be ambitious.

MSG efforts in collective bargaining, joint provision of certain public goods and services, and general regional cooperation and integration will always attract its antagonists.

But should we allow this to determine what we can and cannot do?  I think the answer is obvious – we cannot and we must not.

MSG intra-trade continues to grow.  Currently all items traded do not attract tariff in Fiji and Vanuatu.  Papua New Guinea only has a negative list of three items and Solomon Islands is working on reducing its tariffs by 2017, a differentiated treatment granted to it by the other members because of its LDC status.

MSG countries trade with the outside world is also growing.  This is indication of the positive growth experienced by the MSG over the last few years.  There is strong indication that these growth trends will continue. But let us not delude ourselves.  It would be naïve to think that trade liberalisation, or regional cooperation and integration, are without perils.

For the future, the challenges that MSG will need to address include diversifying our economic activities, growing the SME’s share of our economies and further developing our export capability.

On cultural, traditional and sporting issues, Sir Michael said: 

The Framework Treaty on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture signed in 2011 is a good starting point for MSG.

The Melanesian Cup must be revived and made more permanent on the calendar.  I am happy to note that New Caledonia will host the Melanesian Cup next year.

The Melanesian Festival of Arts must continue to be a major event for MSG.” (Papua New Guinea will host  this event next year.)

Many of our sacred cultural properties were illegally exported and are currently being held overseas in museums and private collections.

It would help with national efforts if MSG were to develop a common strategy to address this issue of the repatriation of these sacred objects of art,

In some cases human remains, need to be brought back home to rest.

“Adequately resourcing our Museums and Cultural institutions to research, document, preserve and promote our cultures and traditions would ensure that

our future generations continue to have a Melanesian identity.

“Just as important is the need to develop appropriate curricula to teach inour schools.

“Traditional institutions, such as the customary Chiefs, and customary practices, such as reconciliation ceremonies, can be better leveraged for policy dissemination and conflict resolution.”

In conclusion Sir Michael said, “MSG has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Goroka.  But we certainly have not reached the ‘promised land’ that our people deserve and expect us to deliver.

“The Kanaky peoples’ dream of emancipation has not been realised yet.

We must therefore recommit ourselves to the goals and objectives set by our leaders.  There is need to redouble our efforts towards greater cooperation and integration within our national boundaries, between ourselves and with our brothers in our region.

“MSG cooperation and integration has been successful because there are willing partners determined to share resources, best practices and, in certain instances, prepared to extend differentiated treatment to one another in recognition of their peculiar development needs.

“I would further propose that the bigger and more well-endowed of the MSG countries, like Papua New Guinea, must accept asymmetric responsibilities if MSG cooperation and integration is to be sustained.

“Those well off in our Group must be prepared to make sacrifices, forego certain short term benefits, for the common good and the long term solidarity of MSG.

MSG must provide the leadership in advancing wider regional interests and concerns.  It must provide the building block for wider regional cooperation and economic prosperity.  Our interests are mutually reinforcing.

“The willingness to extend a helping hand must continue to guide MSG’sapproach to regional cooperation.  In fact, I would venture to suggest that this sense of compassion should underpin our every effort in regionalcooperation and integration.

“As such, MSG must, where ever possible, employ its size and strength to the service of the wider region, especially the small island states.

“An MSG without the Pacific is the weaker, just as a Pacific without the MSGis the poorer.

“At all costs we must resist the temptation of being inward looking – there is so much to be gained from being inclusive. The future of MSG is destined to be nothing but better. We must aim to make MSG the paragon of Pacific sub-regionalism.

“Together we have defied the odds and together we shall triumph. Long live MSG and long live Kanaky peoples.”