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Transcription of President Panuelo’s Media Interview with ABC Australia on February 4th, 2021, Following the Pacific Island Forum Special Leaders Retreat
PALIKIR, Pohnpei—On February 4th, 2021, His Excellency David W. Panuelo—President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)—gave an interview with ABC Australia’s Pacific Beat program regarding the results and outcomes of the Pacific Island Forum Special Leaders Retreat meeting held on February 3rd. In place of any other formal statement by the FSM at this time on the matter of the Pacific Island Forum Special Leaders Retreat, the President has requested that his media interview be written up and disseminated as any other Press Release. The interview occurred at 7:30am, Pohnpei Standard Time, prior to the 9:00am reconvening of the Pacific Islands Forum. President Panuelo is grateful to ABC Australia Pacific Beat for the opportunity to have his voice heard on their program.
The transcription below may be found in its original audio form here: https://www.abc.net.au/radio-australia/programs/pacificbeat/fsm-pres-covid-pif/13120114
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:Good morning President Panuelo and thank you so much for joining me this morning on Pacific Beat.
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:Good morning!
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:Firstly, you were in the room where it happened. What is your initial reaction to what happened last night?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:Well, you were right—it was quite a marathon, I think the meeting started at 9:00am and we, uh, closed out around midnight. So that was quite a marathon. Y’know, the close election result for the position of the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum is a demonstration that we have not embraced the Pacific Way. What we have seen is a failure of the Pacific Way, in my opinion. Some countries which privately would discuss at length the existence and mechanics of the Gentleman’s Agreement would later tell the Forum at large that it doesn’t exist. Whether the Gentleman’s Agreement is written or unwritten, it is very telling that some countries will tell you one thing to your face, and another thing to a larger audience.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:So it sounds like—sorry, go ahead.
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:That said, I think what matters is what we do now and what we do next. I spoke with President of Nauru, our Micronesian Presidents Chairman—we will be meeting soon to discuss our next steps. And you will remember that in October the Micronesian Presidents Summit wrote in a Joint Communique that the Micronesian Presidents have been committed to our candidate since September 2019. That solidarity and strength of the Pacific Islands Forum is strengthened by the Gentleman’s Agreement, that the issue is one of respect, and unity, which is—we said at the time—is non-negotiable for the Micronesian Presidents. We said that we see no benefit to remaining in the Pacific Islands Forum if that Gentleman’s Agreement is not abided by and rotated by the three subregions.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:Now what would it mean—what would it have meant if Micronesia did have that position, if Gerald Zackios was chosen as the Secretary General?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:Well, you know the argument we have is that the Pacific Islands Forum must be inclusive and give a chance for the subregions to take the leadership going forward to unite the Pacific Island Countries. I think this has been the way it was selected in the past or in some of the past selections of the Secretary General post, and so Gerald [Zackios] is a very qualified individual. It’ll be based on merit and also based on the Pacific Way to rotate and go by that Gentleman’s Agreement. You know, some Gentleman’s Agreement—whether unwritten or written—is similar to the unwritten rules of the Pacific Islands Forum where Fiji, as a host, is supposed to not field a candidate because they get the benefit of the Pacific Islands Forum presence in Suva, Fiji. And similarly, here in the FSM as you know we host the WCPFC, the Tuna Commission, and I think that’s one of the unwritten rules that the FSM, you know, understood that we will not field a candidate for the Executive Director of the Tuna Commission. It’s just a courtesy that we go by, so I think that’s a fair way to make sure that the Pacific remains united. You’ll remember that the Pacific Islands Forum used to be the South Pacific [Islands] Forum and the name was changed to become inclusive and include all the subregions. The PIF must be inclusive; if [Gerald] Zackios was the Secretary General we would see a genuinely inclusive Pacific. What we have seen is a South Pacific that looks down on the North Pacific, and we find it that—is deeply unfortunate.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:Do you think the outcome would have potentially been different if leaders like yourself could have met in any capacity before this Zoom meeting? Obviously because of COVID it made it quite difficult, but do you think it would have been easier or better to back Ambassador Zackios as the SecGen?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:Well, you know that was discussed during the meeting. These are extraordinary times. Nobody knows when the next face to face meeting was going to be held, whether it’s going to be six months or one year down the road. And so you know, sometimes we just have to be innovative and I believe that the Pacific Way can be accomplished through virtual meetings like we did because that’s what we have been doing. A lot of things have changed in terms of how we do business, where Ambassadors used to come and be in person to present their letters of credence, we’re doing that now virtually. So, I think meeting in person, while that is good, it’s no excuse to keep those principles of solidarity among Pacific nations because whether we meet in person or do it virtually, I think the principles remains the same, the way I would see it.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:…. President, do you think that there is a question about transparency—especially if there was this Gentleman’s Agreement which you do talk about. Was it not well understood, or do you think there was a lack of transparency there?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO: Youknow, some of the members of the Pacific Islands Forum are very senior. They know very well that in past selections the consideration of the Gentleman’s Agreement was there, and it was used. I think the forefathers who designed and established the Pacific Islands Forum foresaw that in the future there will be many competitions for the Secretary General post, and I think rotating between the subregions would be a way of showing that unity and the principles of respect and trust among Pacific Island members. So, I do see it that the action taken last night with the plea of the Micronesian subregion, to get a chance to lead the Pacific Islands Forum—not achieving that, I believe that that’s a really huge fracture in the unity and the spirit of cooperation among the members of the vast Pacific region that we have.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:Now, the vote—that final vote was done in secret. Do you think there was an issue of transparency there? And not only for you in the room but also for the punters and people outside watching what’s going on and waiting for that vote and that result. Do you think the fact that it was in secret impacted that result?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:That’s hard to say. But, you know, we’re going through this procedure as one of the first procedures because in as much as we can, we try to achieve consensus. So last night I asked, I made a motion to ask the Foreign Minister, the Honorable Foreign Minister Marise Payne, to be the independent trusted leader because we trust Australia. Australia is a dear friend of the FSM. And so, we trust the results. We just don’t like them—the way it turned out, because it didn’t give into consideration the rotation that we had anticipated using the Gentleman’s Agreement.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:Now, of course you did say that the Micronesian Leaders will be meeting soon but I think the question on everyone’s mind and on everyone’s lips is what is the future of Micronesia and PIF? What is—how do you see this going forward?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:You know, the Micronesian subregion—we’ve talked about amplifying the MPS, the Micronesian Presidents Summit, and that would be a topic of discussion among the Presidents of the Micronesian subregion when we do meet. And that will be very soon, to discuss the next steps that we will take from this day going forward.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:However, you know in the leadup to this Special Leaders Retreat, we had former Palauan President say that he will pull Palau out of PIF if [Gerald] Zackios was not put into this position. Will you be leaving PIF? Is that something that you are planning on doing? Is that something that other Micronesian subgroup leaders have told you?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:To answer your question succinctly: that is the position of every member of the Micronesian subregion, or the Micronesian Presidents Summit members. And so that would be the topic of our discussion, to exactly be united in our decision—that we don’t see any, you know, if there’s no trust and recognition of the rotation of the subregions of the Pacific, then there’s really no reason to remain in the Pacific Islands Forum.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:Now if Micronesian subgroup does pull away from PIF, what would this potentially mean then for the people on the ground, the people who live in Micronesia? By pulling out, will that have much impact on the work that you do?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:Well, you know, I will tell you that in the early days when the Federated States of Micronesia was trying to be inclusive and join the Pacific Island Countries, we opened our Embassy [in Fiji] way back in the late 1980s so that we can join the Pacific Island Countries out of Fiji. And I think what you’ve seen over the years is that there’s a decentralization of some of the organizations. The FSM [through] Pohnpei will be hosting the Multi-Country Office of the U.N., so you can see that some of those offices are based in Pohnpei to serve the North Pacific. There’s an SPC sub-office here, U.N. Agencies, World Bank, [Asian Development Bank]—and so I think the North Pacific has got a lot of the reach right now to look at Micronesian Presidents Summit as one organization that we can look to and strengthen our unity in the North Pacific. But in terms of overall ways that our people will be affected: I don’t see much of that being the case. We do our relations bilaterally, multilaterally, we’re a member of the United Nations, and we’re a member of most of the CROP Agencies so our membership in the Pacific Islands Forum is not, you know, it doesn’t impact our relationship or our membership in the Forum Fisheries Agency, the SPC, and the rest of the organizations. And it’s unfortunate that this unity, through the vote, was not demonstrated in the way that we hoped it will, in solidifying the Pacific Island Countries.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:…. Were leaders like yourself able to have a discussion about the other issues in the region like COVID-19?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:We did, and we all did extensively share experiences of the respective countries. The FSM is one of the countries that have been fortunate to keep COVID-19 out for over a year, and just January, early January, we had our first border case. But since then, it’s been determined by our medical professionals that it is an historical case and non-infectious. Multiple tests determined that, and we reported that to the WHO, so just a couple of weeks ago the WHO again declared the FSM as COVID-19 free again. And so, we’re currently in a lockdown situation in the FSM because our health, our health capacity cannot handle taking care of a COVID-19 breakout. And so that’s why we’re taking a very tough stance. Fortunately, we received close to 20,000 doses of vaccine from the U.S. CDC because of our connection with the United States, and our aim and my goal is to reach herd immunity of at least 70% of the 18 years and above, so that can serve as a foundation by which to begin safely repatriating our citizens from overseas.
ABC AUSTRALIA PACIFIC BEAT:Talking about that 70% population vaccination, when do you plan to reach that percentage?
HIS EXCELLENCY DAVID W. PANUELO:Well, the Pacific Islands Countries or the members of the PIF—only the FSM, Marshall Islands and Palau, I believe, were the ones who’ve already started receiving doses of the Moderna vaccine. And we’re fortunate in that respect, so we’re receiving weekly shipments coming in from the CDC and our aim is as soon as possible. The FSM has given more than 6,000 [doses[ so far to frontline workers, and that is going to expand to senior citizens and folks with vulnerable conditions and illnesses. But so far, we’ve received about 20,000 doses in total, and next week we’re informed by CDC that we’re getting about another 10,000. So you can see that the vaccination rate to reach the level of herd immunity that we want to achieve is going very fast because the shipments from the US are arriving every two weeks or sooner, depending on the shipment. So, we’re getting vaccines from the U.S. at the same rate of speed that the U.S. States and Territories are receiving, and that’s the fortunate part of our Treaty with the U.S., the Compact of Free Association, which treats the FSM as though it is one of their states. And that’s the alliance we have with the U.S., and I am very thankful of the U.S. Government for this Enduring Partnership.