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PRESS STATEMENT August 12, 2002


As the 33rd Pacific Islands Forum meetings get under way in Suva, Fiji this week it is useful to reflect that the 16-member Forum was established in 1971 for two main purposes. The first was for the Pacific Islands to have a united strong voice on regional and international affairs, including political matters that were banned from regional meetings of the time. The second was for the Pacific Islands to get a better deal for their produce from their trade and development partners. Over the years the Forum has emerged as the united voice of the Pacific Islands.

Key achievements over the years include:

* the setting up of the Pacific Forum Shipping Line, now a major operator in sea transport in the region;

* the establishment of the Forum Fisheries Agency based in Honiara, now playing a crucial role in the management of one of our most valuable commercial assets, tuna;

* the banning of drift-net fishing,

* SPARTECA, under which preferential access is given to Pacific Islands goods into Australia and New Zealand;

* the continuing commitment of Australia and New Zealand to provide substantial development assistance to the Pacific Island Countries;

* the clear opposition to nuclear testing in the region,

* the Lomé, now the Cotonou Agreement, which now includes all fourteen Pacific Island members of the Forum, in a trade and aid arrangement with the European Union;

* the setting up Forum trade offices in Auckland, Sydney, Tokyo and now Beijing; and

* the increasing levels of development assistance the Forum region is receiving.

The Forum also helped to set up or assisted in the development of regional programs such as the South Pacific Geo-Science Commission (SOPAC); the South Pacific Tourism Organization (SPTO); the South Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP) and the University of the South Pacific (USP).

And what of the future?

While the Forum has an impressive record, we have had our share of disappointments and lost opportunities, and many of the current trends are not very positive. There is the continuing destruction and pollution of the environment and the rapid depletion of many of our natural resources.

The majority of Pacific Islanders suffer from many social problems including poor health and low educational attainment. And many of our people are struggling to make ends meet in a rapidly changing social, political and economic environment, either because of limited skills or capacity, or because the existing conditions do not provide them with opportunities.

We're aware of the great Pacific Paradox, where much aid is received (our region receives the highest aid per individual in the world) but is not translated into higher sustainable economic growth. We're also experiencing increased political instability, corruption and crime, both nationally and internationally, including money laundering, drug trafficking and people smuggling. We see rapid population growth, in parts of our region, putting further pressure on our limited and shrinking resources.

And we can feel the enormous pressures being put on us by the forces of globalization, many of which, while creating new opportunities also create new problems, such as transnational crime. Whereas many still see it as the catalyst that will hasten development, there is a growing disenchantment with some of the results of globalization, the main negative being increasing levels of poverty and growing gaps between rich and poor.

This is the Forum's new challenge. It has succeeded in meeting its original goals but it must now adapt to the new challenges if it is to have something to celebrate in the future.

At the end of his 2001 Forum Address, the surviving co-founder of the Forum, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara said:

"Just one word -- at the outset, it was we, the old men who dreamt dreams. I now call upon the young men and women to see visions. For where there is no vision the people perish."

I must commend our Leaders for their foresight and courage in taking on these new and difficult challenges.

For example, the Forum, through its Economic Action Plan and Accountability Principles, has taken up the challenge of assisting member countries to reform their economies along good governance principles.

In August 2001, the Forum Leaders signed a free trade agreement, or the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA), among Forum Island Countries. This fulfils one of the Forum's original aims, as the inaugural 1971 Forum agenda included discussions on regional trade integration. PICTA aims are to promote trade and investment within the region and to stimulate private sector growth and development. In the meantime the Forum is stepping up its efforts to promote the region overseas markets including through its trade offices in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Peoples Republic of China.

There are other important Forum initiatives in aviation, communication and shipping policies, which should have the effect of freeing up the flow and reduce the cost of transportation and communication in the region.

The Forum Education Ministers agreed last year to a Basic Education Action Plan. This seeks to enhance, through education, the capacity of Pacific Islanders to manage change and use or create opportunities in their new and rapidly changing environment.

At the 2000 Forum in Kiribati, the Forum in response to increasing political crises agreed on the Biketawa Declaration. This contains first, a list of good governance principles that the Forum members agree to live by; and second, a procedure to follow that may result in regional action if one or more of such principles are broken or undermined. The Forum sent its first ever Elections Observer Mission to observe elections in the Solomon Islands in December 2001. More recently, the Forum Eminent Persons Group visited Solomon Islands to discusses ways the Forum may assist the Solomon Islands. The Forum is also stepping up its efforts to enhance law enforcement cooperation and capacity in the region to counter transnational crime.

These initiatives indicate the change in direction that the Forum is taking in order to meet new challenges at the social, economic and political level. We have met similar challenges before, and I am confident that by continuing to work together, the Forum will continue to play a major role in shaping the future of our region.

NB: The 33rd Pacific Islands Forum and Related Meetings run from August 13 to 21. The Forum Leaders Retreat is on Friday August 16, followed by the Forum Formal Session on Saturday, August 17.

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