Speaking to journalists at last week’s Pacific Islands Forum, President Anote Tong of Kiribati had a few words to say about the problems facing the islands of the South Pacific.

‘You know what the reality of life is? In our life, there will always be bullies,’ said Tong. ‘But in our lives, if you allow yourself to be bullied, then so you shall be bullied.’

For small island states gathering at the annual forum leaders meeting in Auckland, the presence of major powers highlighted the potential for support on global issues — but also the imbalance of power and the need for island states to stand up for their own interests.

This year was the 40th anniversary of the Forum, which rose out of the South Pacific Commission (SPC), an institution created in 1947 by the colonial powers to promote economic and social development in their Pacific colonies.

In 1971, island leaders such as the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara of Fiji, Albert Henry of the Cook Islands and Hammer de Roburt of Nauru created the Pacific Islands Forum as a separate body, because the colonial powers refused to allow ‘political’ issues like nuclear testing and political independence to be freely discussed at SPC meetings.

Forty years on, the Forum has evolved into a 16-member body, linking Australia, New Zealand and the 14 independent island States (with Fiji currently suspended from activities).

The Forum is no longer just an institution of the independent nations of the region. The regional organisation now has two associate members — the French dependencies of New Caledonia and French Polynesia — and other territories with observer status (Tokelau and Wallis and Futuna). Next year, these will be joined by the three remaining US territories in the region (American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas). Now Rapanui, Pitcairn and West Papua are the only ones outside the Forum tent, but their day may come. Significantly the UN Secretary General, flanked by NZ PM John Key, said at the forum last week: ‘We must do all to ensure the human rights of the people of West Papua.’

In recent years, island observers have also jostled for space with a number of multilateral agencies with observer status, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Commonwealth, the United Nations and, from this year, the African Caribbean and Pacific group of states Secretariat.

If the Forum keeps expanding the number of observers, one day the island leaders may again wish to meet separately from the world’s major powers. The huge gathering in Auckland last week raises questions about whether political issues can be freely discussed without offending visiting delegations.

For some observers in Auckland, this year’s Forum looked top heavy. Alongside UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, the EU delegation led by European Commission President Juan Manuel Barroso was jostling for space with French Minister of State for Foreign and European Affairs Alain Juppe. (This, incidentally, was the first visit to New Zealand by a French foreign minister in 28 years.)

A 50-strong US delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides passed through the corridors with Japan’s Secretary of State Yamaguchi and a Chinese delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tankai.

In Auckland, the Francophone world also announced a bid for observer status. The French equivalent of the British Commonwealth wants to be involved in view of the Forum’s habit of debating issues like French Polynesia’s call to be re-inscribed on the UN list of non-self-governing territories. Although 11 island members of the Forum have pledged support for President Oscar Temaru’s quest, Australia and New Zealand both refused support for French Polynesia this year. Australia and New Zealand are both bidding for a rotating UN Security Council seat and will want to avoid the French lobbying against them.

For Forum host New Zealand, the presence of all these delegations was a political coup. It occurred just as Auckland was thronging with tens of thousands of visitors for the opening game of the Rugby World Cup.

But in the rush of rugby fever and competing announcements from big countries and NGOs, it was sometimes hard for the small island states to make themselves heard.

The media contingent that covers the forum is dominated by press packs who follow the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers. The few media occasions are consumed by questions about the topics of the day for their domestic audiences: Australia’s asylum policy or the All Blacks’ chances in the opening game of the World Cup.

On the core issues affecting island states, it can be harder to get Pacific perspectives. On the day preceding the Forum, the Small Islands States (SIS) caucus and the annual meeting of the Pacific members of the African Caribbean and Pacific (PACP) grouping are usually followed by press conferences. But both the SIS and PACP media conferences were cancelled without explanation, leaving the journalists who are interested to scour the corridors to get island views on key issues like climate change or trade policy.

And caught up in the diplomatic theatre of media conferences and announcements of funding pledges, many journalists don’t have the time or experience to notice that some donors are just recycling past pledges.

The US delegation proudly announced they were committing US$21 million to climate adaptation funding. The hosts were too polite to ask whether this was the same $21 million that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced when she toured the region last year.

The real challenge is to convert promises into action. In a joint statement on climate change, SIS leaders expressed concern ‘that much has been promised by the global community to support countries adversely affected by current and future impacts of climate change, yet very little has been seen in terms of fulfilling international commitment.’

Even so, there were key outcomes at the Forum. Australia invited four new Pacific neighbours to join the remaining nine months of the Pacific Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme and there was new Australian and New Zealand funding announced for education, fisheries and disaster response.

And above all, many remarked that Ban Ki-Moon finally understood the threat of climate change to the islands. Before his arrival in New Zealand, the UN Secretary General visited Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Australia. Kiribati President Anote Tong hosted him in Tarawa, and highlighted the particular vulnerability of low lying atolls in a very personal way.

‘I was very happy that the Secretary General of the United Nations went to visit Kiribati’, Tong said. ‘I think he saw for the first time what I was trying to convey to him.’