As one of the smallest countries on Earth, the Pacific island nation of Palau does not always get to command the world’s attention.
However, every member gets to take the world stage at the UN General Assembly’s premier annual meeting and Palauan President Tommy Remengesau on Wednesday used his turn to illuminate the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and speak out on behalf of Taiwan.
He also pressed environmental issues and said that no nation is an island unto itself in the international system, especially during a pandemic.
Photo: UNTV via AP
Palau has been virus-free, but “we are certainly not free of the consequences of this pandemic,” Remengesau told the General Assembly by video.
The pandemic has inflicted “a level of isolation we have not known for many, many years,” he said.
Palau has struggled to keep food and medicine flowing in, to provide some medical treatment for which residents usually travel to larger countries and to contend with private-sector unemployment, which is approaching 50 percent, Remengesau said, adding that Palau needs financial support and equitable access to potential vaccines.
“In a global community, parts of the world cannot be made safe in isolation,” he said.
Palau is a biodiversity hotspot about 970km east of the Philippines, with 20,000 people scattered across a 250-island tropical archipelago. It was administered by the US for half a century before gaining independence in 1994.
A compact with the US governs economic and other relations, and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper last month visited Palau in a first for any US defense chief and a reflection of US-Chinese competition for influence in the Pacific.
Palau is one of only 15 states with official diplomatic relations with Taiwan and Remengesau said that tensions keeping Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly over the past few years have “made the world less safe,” as Taiwan has won praise for its handling of the pandemic.
At a time when COVID-19 is absorbing much of the world’s attention, Remengesau told world leaders not to lose sight of another priority: “repairing our relationship with nature” by tackling ocean pollution, overfishing, climate change and loss of biodiversity.
Palau has banned many types of sunscreen in an effort to protect coral reefs.
Marine scientists have said that some chemicals can be toxic to such reefs, although some critics question whether there has been enough research to support prohibiting the products.
Palau also recently made almost all of its coastal waters a marine sanctuary, where no fishing or mining is allowed.
Remengesau said that he hopes that the move “will inspire ambition elsewhere.”
“We are all ocean people” on a planet where the seas provide food, help regulate the climate, and serve as trade routes and natural defenses, said Remengesau, who wore a shell necklace in the video.
After serving 16 of the past 20 years as Palau’s president, he plans to further his own bond with the ocean when his current term ends in January next year.
“I will return to being a fisherman in Palau’s pristine waters,” he said.
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