Opinion: Leadership of the Forum – Fiji’s Candidate

The Heads of the Pacific Islands Forum Governments will meet virtually in early February 2021 to choose the next Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), to succeed the outgoing Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor DBE of Papua New Guinea. 

This is perhaps the first time that we see as many as five regional island candidates, seeking to fill the position of the next Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. Much has been written about each of the five eminent candidates from Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, The Cook Islands and The Marshall Islands. It is a formidable task faced by the Heads of Member Governments of the PIF, to choose one from among the five but there remains high hopes that they, as usual, will come to a consensus candidate in the true Pacific Way.  

The appointment of a new Secretary General comes at a time of increasingly complex geopolitical shifts, with long-established global powers – the United States, China, Japan, France, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – now jostling for more influence in the region. There are also new players, such as India, South Korea, and Indonesia showing much greater influence and interest in the region. Coupled with this, the Island economies are battling with the effects of COVID 19 pandemic on its fragile development, the adverse effects of climate change and the new age of rapid technology developments. In the face of these global challenges, the Forum is a crucial mechanism to forge regional responses.

Among the contenders for the Secretary General is the former and seasoned Fijian Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009 to 2017), Ratu Inoke Kubuabola. In a statement putting forward the candidature of Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, the Prime Minister of Fiji, Hon Voreqe Bainimarama said it was a decision that the Fijian Government had undertaken after careful consideration of the complex regional environment and the need for strong and decisive leadership at the Pacific Island Forum at this time. Prime Minister Bainimarama said that Ratu Inoke Kubuabola’s leadership will be instrumental in charting the course for the next 50 years, particularly in developing a form of regionalism that responds to member needs beginning with the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific.

Historically, Fiji’s first and most revered Prime Minister, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara led through his foresight, leadership and efforts, the establishment of regional institutions such South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation (SPEC), later known as the South Pacific Forum, and now known the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). It was also at his insistence that Australia and New Zealand were wisely included as members of the SPEC together with the independent and self-governing island states of the South Pacific. Fiji fully acknowledges the distinctive and exceptional nature of the PIF in that it is an organization of developed and developing countries of the region.

Since its inception in 1971, the precursors of PIF and PIF were established to provide a setting for Heads of Governments to discuss common issues and problems facing the development issues of independent and self-governing states of the South Pacific.  Fiji has been the pillar of the Forum since its formation and has always proudly and honourably hosted the PIF Secretariat.  In that period of time, Fiji has never insisted on securing its own national as the Secretary General although it has had qualified candidates ever since the early days of 1971, and on one occasion it had even offered a most qualified Fijian candidate. It has always given way to regional consensus, even though there have been occasions when individual regional countries have provided Secretary Generals on more one occasion.

Even at the time of its deepest crisis when it was suspended from the PIF, Fiji continued to host the PIF Secretariat and gave it its full support and did not interfere with its integrity. This was maintained largely under the strong leadership of Fiji’s then Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, who kept his door open to formal and informal contacts through-out Fiji’s difficult years, with each one of the PIF Foreign Ministers and more particularly with his counterparts in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). Ratu Kubuabola enjoyed the trust and confidence of his ANZ counterparts throughout this period since taking up his Office in 2009. He showed his diplomatic and personal skills through out these times.

Fiji re-joined the Forum at the official’s level at its first opportunity, leading to its full participation at the Heads of Government level.

Fiji now firmly believes that on its 50th anniversary of Independence and with its proven leadership credentials on the international and regional fora in the last decade, especially during the tenure of Ratu Inoke Kubuabola as the Fijian Foreign Minister, it should make claim for its national the Position of Secretary General during the exceptional global and regional challenges faced by the region.

I have had the privilege to know and to work most closely and robustly with Ratu Inoke Kubuabola during parts of his tenure as Foreign Minister when I was Fiji’s first Ambassador to Middle East and North African Countries, based in Abu Dhabi and later during part of my tenure as the Head of the Fijian Foreign Ministry. He always respected frank, honest, and fearless advice. I agree totally with the former distinguished and long term Foreign Minister of Australia, Ms Julie Bishop when she described Ratu Inoke as “an effective and principled Fijian Foreign Minister” and  a “proud and passionate Pacific Islander who would be an ideal candidate for the role of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum”.

I have worked alongside Ratu Inoke on many international and regional issues but one that stands out in mind is perhaps our joint effort, but under his leadership, to free 45 Fijian United Nations Peacekeepers who were taken hostage by a Syrian Terrorist Group, the Al Nusra occupying Southern Syria, adjacent to the Golan Heights. This was perhaps Fiji’s most challenging international confrontation in its decades of Independence, and its greatest challenge ever in both their international and domestic spheres.

Unfortunately, our efforts and trust through the intervention of the United Nations, proved futile. We were alone to free our soldiers and to bring them home quickly to their most distressed and confused families, and during a critical period for the Government leading into Fiji’s first national General Elections in 2014 after the 2006 military coup. This was made more urgent especially when we found out that Fiji’s captured soldiers were not only under threat for their lives from the Al Nusra Group but we were informed through regional intelligence contacts, that militias loyal to the Syrian Government had decided to kill our soldiers and blame it on Al Nusra, to prove to the world the alleged barbarity of Al Nusra.

Fiji, as a small island developing country, far, far away from the complex world of the Middle Eastern politics was all alone in this potentially disastrous situation, to rescue our men, even though they were in fact UN soldiers. Under the sole principled leadership of Ratu Inoke and in direct consultation with him, I had to develop our strategy. Ratu Inoke had laid the perimeters; we were morally opposed to negotiating any financial deals let alone being in a financial position to even consider it, although we were warned that our strategy will encounter such a demand. We embarked on clever diplomacy of our own with countries of the region to see who might be able to use their influence with Al Nusra. Through exhaustive and sensitive consultations, we were able to convince a sympathetic country which had close contact with the Al Nusra and was agreeable, after our many overtures and persuasion, to negotiate on our behalf, a sensitive and safe release. When Qatar delivered us the release of our men through their influence, the response of the Qatari Foreign Minister to the expression of Fiji’s sincere appreciation through Ratu Inoke in person at the Qatari Foreign Minister’s Office, were the words that it was “Qatar’s humanitarian gesture for Fiji”. Even the closest of our regional allies were astonished to see our diplomacy at work without any talk of ransom money. This is the calibre of the diplomat and a Leader in Ratu Inoke that Fiji is offering to the region.

Ratu Inoke Kubuabola has been Fiji’s Foreign Minister during Fiji’s most of the difficult days internationally following the 2006 coup d’état, lifting Fiji from there to leadership positions internationally. It was under Ratu Inoke’s calm and considered stewardship, that Fiji has been recognized as an international leader, no small feat for an individual from a small Pacific island developing country in the Pacific. Fiji has been internationally recognized for its leadership on international issues in being elected to leadership roles, for example, among others,

  • President of the Executive Board of the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Population Fund, and the United Nations Office of Project Services;
  • Fiji’s Chairmanship of the Group of 77 and China, the UN’s largest negotiating group, made up of 133 developing countries;
  • President of the 17th Session of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority (ISA),
  • President of 21st Session of the ISA Council;
  • The name-change of the UN’s Regional Group from that of “the Asian Group” to its new name of “the Asia-Pacific Group”;
  • President of the United Nations General Assembly;
  • Co-President of the UN Oceans Conference;
  • Presidency of the CoP 23; and
  • Member of the Human Rights Council.

Ratu Inoke will bring these enormous capacity, experience, abilities, and credentials to the region. In performing these international functions, Ratu Inoke has always been cognizant in carrying the region with him and Fiji, being inclusive of the PIF Region by holding appropriate regional consultations and in contributing enormously to many regional initiatives.

The Fijian Government believes that Ratu Inoke Kubuabola has demonstrated strong leadership and effective management through his many Ministerial positions and institutional reforms. Fiji is confident that with this appointment, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola will strategically position the PIF to better serve our Blue Pacific Continent and its peoples. Fiji further believes that Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, with his proven record, is the optimal candidate to steer PIF forward in this modern era of the serious effects of climate change on the Island Countries of region, urgent need for the further development of the region’s social and economic needs, the rapid developments in modern technology, global tensions in trade, the emerging sentiments back towards greater protectionism of local industries for national security, and the aftermath of COVID19. Through the experience, capacity and the trust that Ratu Inoke has built with countries around the world and in the region, I believe that Ratu Inoke Kubuabola will be the best appointment to make a great contribution towards restoring and reinforcing the PIF’s significant role in the region.

Ambassador Robin Nair OF is an Adjunct Professor at the Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia. He has had the unique distinction of serving as a senior diplomat internationally for two countries, a developed and a developing country, Australia, and Fiji. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the publisher.