It’s Micronesia’s turn to head the Forum: Tong

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.

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