MSG leaders defer Papua membership decision to Pacific Islands Forum

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MSG leaders sign the two declarations - on climate crisis and subregional security
MSG leaders sign the two declarations - on climate crisis and subregional security - after their retreat at Vanuatu's Havana Boat Shed, North Efate . . . silence on West Papua. Image: RNZ Pacific / Kelvin Anthony

By Kelvin Anthony, RNZ Pacific journalist in Port Vila

The leaders of five Melanesian countries and territories avoided a definitive update on the status of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua’s application for full membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group in Port Vila.

However, the 22nd MSG Leaders’ Summit was hailed as the “most memorable and successful” by Vanuatu’s prime minister as leaders signed off on two new declarations in their efforts to make the subregion more influential.

As well as the hosts, the meeting was attended by Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and the pro-independence FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front) of New Caledonia.

But the meeting had an anticlimactic ending after the leaders failed to release the details about the final outcomes or speak to news media.

The first agreement that was endorsed is the Udaune Declaration on Climate Change to address the climate crisis and “urging countries not to discharge potentially harmful treated nuclear contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean”.

“Unless the water treated is incontrovertibly proven, by independent scientists, to be safe to do and seriously consider other options,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau said at the event’s farewell dinner last night.

The leaders also signed off on the Efate Declaration on Mutual Respect, Cooperation and Amity to advance security initiatives and needs of the Melanesian countries.

This document aims to “address the national security needs in the MSG region through the Pacific Way, kipung, tok stori, talanoa and storian, and bonded by shared values and adherence to the Melanesian vuvale, cultures and traditions,” Kalsakau said.

He said the leaders “took complex issues such as climate change, denuclearisation, and human rights and applied collective wisdom” to address the issues that were on the table.


Stefan Armbruster reporting from Port Vila.  Video: SBS World News

No update on West Papua
The issue of full membership for the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP)  was a big ticket item on the agenda at the meeting in Port Vila, according to MSG chair Kalsakau.

However, there was no update provided on it and the leaders avoided fronting up to the media except for photo opportunities.

Benny Wenda at the 22 Melanesian Spearhead Group Leaders' Summit in Port Vila. 22 August 2023
Benny Wenda at the 22nd Melanesian Spearhead Group Leaders’ Summit in Port Vila . . . “I don’t know the outcome. Maybe this evening the leaders will announce [it].” Image: RNZ Pacific/Kelvin Anthony

ULMWP leader Benny Wenda (above) told RNZ Pacific late on Thursday he was still not aware of the result of their membership application but that he was “confident” about it.

“I don’t know the outcome. Maybe this evening the leaders will announce at the reception,” Wenda said.

“From the beginning I have been confident that this is the time for the leaders to give us full membership so we can engage with Indonesia.”

According to the MSG Secretariat the final communique is now expected to be released on Friday.

Referred to Pacific Islands Forum
However, it is likely that the West Papua issue will be referred to the Pacific Islands Forum to be dealt with.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said after the signing: “on the issues that was raised in regards to West Papua…these matters to be handled at [Pacific Islands Forum]”.

“The leaders from the Pacific will also visit Jakarta and Paris” to raise issues about sovereignty and human rights,” he said.

Kalsakau said he looked forward to progressing the implementaiton of important issue recommendations from the 22nd MSG Leaders’ Summit which also include “supporting the 2019 call by the Forum Leaders for a visit by the OHCHR to West Papua”.

MSG leaders drink kava in Port Vila
MSG leaders drink kava to mark the end of the meeting and the signing two declarations. Image: RNZ Pacific/Kelvin Anthony

Indonesia ‘proud’
Indonesia’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pahala Mansury, said Indonesia was proud to be part of the Melanesian family.

Indonesia is an associate member of MSG and has said it does not accept ULMWP’s application to become a full member because it claims that this goes against the MSG’s founding principles and charter.

During the meeting this week, Indonesian delegates walked out on occasions when ULMWP representatives made their intervention.

Some West Papua campaigners say these actions showed that Indonesia did not understand “the Melanesian way”.

“You just don’t walk out of a sacred meeting haus when you’re invited to be part of it,” one observer said.

However, Mansury said Indonesia hoped to “continue to increase, enhance and strengthen future collaboration between Indonesia and all of the Melanesian countries”.

“We are actually brothers and sisters of Melanesia and we hope we can continue to strengthen the bond together,” he said.

Australia and China attended as special guests at the invitation of the Vanuatu government.

China supported the Vanuatu government to host the meeting.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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