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By Michael Field

SUVA, Fiji Islands (August 14, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---One of the world's smaller summit organizations, born out of anger over French atmospheric nuclear testing, will hold its 31st annual gathering this week puzzled at its meandering slide into irrelevancy.

It has s created its own problem by successfully farming out to other institutions all its once big issues -- economic, fisheries, environment, tourism and education. And now its biggest problem is whether to give its top job to an Australian.

The 16-nation Pacific Forum ties 14 of the world's smallest states with Australia and New Zealand and this week it holds its summit here. This comes just four weeks after the African, Caribbean and Pacific summit in Fiji and with many of the same leaders then trooping off to South Africa and a global summit -- again on the same issues.

The Forum membership comes complete with some crazy maths. The Marshall Islands has just 181 square kilometers (72 square miles) of land (none of it more than five meters (15 feet) above sea level -- a third the size of Singapore -- while sitting in an exclusive economic zone the size of Greenland. Nauru, at 21 square kilometers (eight square miles) -- most of it bleak strip-mined landscape -- is the world's smallest republic and would easily fit into downtown Auckland.

So small are the states that the populations of five of the smallest combined would nearly half fill Sydney's Olympic Stadium -- while Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea make up 93 percent of the forum's population and 99 percent of the land area.

The first Forum summit was in Wellington in 1971 and only one of those who attended is still alive: Fiji's now retired President Kamisese Mara.

The first meeting involved the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, New Zealand, Tonga and then Western Samoa. Nauru President Hammer de Roburt was in dispute at the time with Australia over payments for phosphate soils and so Canberra was excluded from that first meeting.

The early and dominant issue was French atmospheric and later underground nuclear testing, which only stopped in 1996. The Pacific's frustration with Paris was evident in the way they struggled to come up with new ways to say the same thing in their always lengthy communiqués each year. In their last statement on the subject they resorted to expressing "extreme outrage."

Mara, who claims credit for inventing the Forum, said in his autobiography, The Pacific Way, that the Forum had become dominated by bureaucrats who only allowed the leaders to speak on subjects they were allowed to.

The more practical issues, such as fisheries management or environmental impacts, were all taken over by separate Forum organizations, which today remain a testimony to good development politics but leave little opportunity for leaders to grandstand.

The post of secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat comes up at this meeting, with Australia plugging one of its own diplomats, Greg Urwin. Nobody from either Australia or New Zealand has ever held the post and an unspoken tradition has it that it will always be held by a Pacific Islander.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who arrives Wednesday, is unfazed by this and wants Urwin to rescue the Forum from its increasing irrelevancy.

The outgoing secretary general, Papua New Guinean Noel Levi, rejects criticism that the Forum is sliding away by pointing out that all 16 leaders are attending -- a rare event.

"This is indeed very pleasing for me, particularly as you may be aware that there had been occasional remarks in the media lately, suggesting that the Forum Secretariat and by implication the Forum as a regional organization had become unresponsive to the needs of the region," he told the opening officials meeting Tuesday. "One only has to look at the agenda today and the list of distinguished Leaders to realize the nonsense of such claims."

He said regional security would be a key issue along with a Pacific approach to the World Development Summit in South Africa.

"Issues on which we need to reach consensus include climate change and sea level rise, whale sanctuaries, methods of progressing controls on the transport of nuclear weapons and radio active materials and on several important fisheries issues."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website:  Website: 

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