May 10, 2021 Last Updated 2:42 AM, May 10, 2021

As Pacific leaders meet Wednesday this week to try and select the next head of the Pacific Islands Forum, Former Kiribati Leader AnoteTong weighs in on what has been a divisive process.

Long-time President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, says it’s Micronesia’s turn to head the Pacific Islands Forum.

“There was always this understanding that the selection of the Secretary General [of the Forum] was through consensus, and there was also an understanding that the post would always be rotated among the Pacific Island regions, and that Fiji as host and Australia and New Zealand would provide back up, to support the SG, not to provide a nominee.

“These are the unwritten rules but they do have a place, its part of the tradition for the organisation and I believe such a rule was there for a very good reason.

“I believe every country must feel ownership of the Pacific Islands Forum but if you keep tossing the SG role around to only a certain countries within the group then the rest would feel that they don’t have a place in the organisation.”

Tong, who was President of Kiribati for 12 years from 2003 to 2015, was speaking to Islands Business in Suva before his departure for Tarawa on a special repatriation flight.

The magazine had sought his views on the five-way race for the SG’s job amidst insistence by his country and the four other Forum member nations that belong to the Micronesian sub-region (Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau) that it was Micronesia’s turn to provide the new head of the 18- member Forum, a grouping of independent and self-governed territories in the Pacific which also includes Australia and New Zealand.

The Forum’s secretariat is based in Suva, Fiji and current SG, Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea, completed her six-year term in December last year. Pacific leaders were unable to appoint a successor in 2020 due to the cancellation of their annual Forum summit as a result of the COVID19 pandemic.

Forum chair, Tuvalu Prime Minister, Kausea Natano – at the insistence of the Micronesian members of the Forum – has called a special leaders Forum this week to decide on Dame Meg’s replacement.

In the running are Micronesia’s candidate, Ambassador Gerald Zackios of the Marshall Islands, Jimmy Rodgers of Solomon Islands, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola of Fiji, Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua of Tonga and a former prime minister of Cook Islands, Henry Puna.

President Tong believes that for such a controversial and problematic appointment, leaders need to meet face to face. A virtual discussion won’t cut it he insists.

“A contentious issue like this one cannot be decided virtually over camera links. They have to sit down together and negotiate.

“Otherwise it is going to result in fragmentation and already we are seeing signs of that taking place.”

The Kiribati president says controversy over the appointment of the Forum’s SG is nothing new. It surfaced at the expiry of the term of the first head of the Forum in 1978, that of Mahe Tupouniua of Tonga.

“In 1978 an all-out confrontation broke out between the Prime Minister of Samoa and Ratu Mara of Fiji. Because of that row, the Prime Minister of Tonga offered a compromise, to extend Mahe’s turn for a third time.”

President Tong believes the Forum leaders could do the same, as a way out of the impasse by extending Dame Taylor’s contract for another term.

Working then as an employee of the Forum, Tong said Samoa had wanted to nominate one of its own to succeed Tupouniua when the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Prime Minister of Fiji objected, arguing that Polynesia through Tonga’s Tupouniua had already had its turn.

According to Tong, the so called ‘unwritten rule’ was introduced from this 1978 conflict, whereby the job of the Forum SG would be rotated among the three sub regions, and that Fiji, Australia and New Zealand could only provide a deputy SG, not fill the top job.

Despite this, Tong said another row broke out between leaders in 2003 when another PNG national, Noel Levi had completed his term as SG and leaders disagreed on a replacement at the Forum hosted by New Zealand.

Unable to reach a consensus, Australian diplomat, the late Greg Urwin, was voted in as the next SG, recalled President Tong.

Only once in the Forum Secretariat’s 51 years of existence has a Micronesian led the organisation, which happened in 1992 with the appointment of the founding President of Kiribati, Ieremaia Tabai to the position.

He served from 1992 to 1998.

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor has declined to comment on the negotiations over her successor as head of the regional organisation, saying only “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it right up until the last day which is the 15th of January.”

Dame Meg made the comments in the leadup to the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting next week. Economics officials are meeting this week in preparation for the main proceedings.

Islands Business understands there are currently five contenders for the position of Secretary General; Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Marshall Islands Ambassador to the US, Gerald Zackios, Tonga's international civil servant and development economist,  Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua; former Pacific Community (SPC) Secretary General, Solomon Islander Dr Jimmie Rodgers and former Fiji Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

The change in leadership will come at a critical time; as Pacific Islands meet the economic, health and social challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, manage the sometimes conflicting priorities and activities of development partners in the region, and endeavour to keep climate change action and the “Blue Pacific” narrative at the top of the agenda, all while keeping regionalism alive.

Tuvalu, as Chair of the Forum, had suggested the vote for the new Director General be deferred until next year, but there seems to be little appetite for that amongst other Forum members. Dame Meg says the Forum Chair is still consulting with members on the matter.

Last week the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, Maureen Penjueli said with Vanuatu’s deferral of the Forum Chairmanship until next year, Dame Meg’s imminent departure and the recent departure of her deputy, Cristelle Pratt for the ACP Secretariat, “we are now operating in a leadership vacuum around who is going to champion leadership in the Pacific.

“I think leadership, visionary leadership is quite critical right now.”

Penjueli says it’s important to understand “where regional leadership lies to deal with a whole lot of issues. Whether its unemployment, whether it’ movement of people, whether its debt, whether it’s financing, where and who will champion the Pacific.”

Most recently, Forum  members have cooperated effectively  through the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway to move COVID testing kits, personal protection equipment, supplies, personnel and repatriated citizens through the region. Yet the vote for the Secretary General has the potential to raise tensions. Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau Jr has already plainly stated that that ‘it’s Micronesia’s turn’ and last year the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and Palau all said they supported Ambassador Zackios’ candidacy.

Traditionally a Fijian Secretary General would be an unusual appointment, as Fiji hosts the Forum Secretariat, although Ratu Inoke is well known to regional leaders as a former Foreign and Defence Minister. He represented Fiji at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Samoa in 2017,  in 2016 in Pohnpei, FSM and in PNG in 2015.

While Dame Meg wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics of the SG vote, she did say that she personally felt “I’ve not driven hard enough about issues  on women and public participation of women in public life and also at senior levels of the regional bureaucracies,” noting her two former female Deputy Secretary Generals had now departed. She says unless a woman is elected as Secretary General (and the only female candidate is Tonga’s Siamomua), the organisation will be very much driven by men in the senior positions.

“I don’t believe that I have invested enough in young women that are coming through the organisation. I still have six months left and what I am doing is working closely with our human resources people. It’s not about their training, it’s not about their technical abilities, it’s about confidence. It’s about the confidence to be able to give an opinion and to be able to back it up,” Dame Meg

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