Kiribati returns to Forum, Nauru’s Waqa next Secretary General

Pacific leaders prayed together, ate together and by the end of a long retreat today, saw Kiribati’s full return to the Pacific Islands Forum and a much larger role for its Micronesian members.

Former Nauru President Baron Waqa will be the Forum’s next Secretary General from next year.

Leaders have also agreed a sub-regional office will be established in Kiribati.

Palau will be the new home of the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner and the Forum’s current Deputy Secretary General, Filimon Manoni will take up that role.

Australia and New Zealand have pledged up to NZ$4 million to operationalise the changes under the so-called Suva Agreement.

The Micronesian members of the Forum first signaled their decision to leave in February 2021, on the grounds that a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ over appointment of the PIF Secretary General had been broken.

While Nauru, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau were convinced to return under the so-called Suva Agreement brokered by former Fiji PM Voreqe Bainimarama and his Cook Islands and Samoa counterparts in June last year, Kiribati did not join them in returning to the group.

Fiji Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, who has handed over the Chair’s mantle to his Cook Islands counterpart, Mark Brown today, worked hard to restore regional unity from his very first days in office, visiting Kiribati to present a traditional apology over the matter in his first overseas visit.

Last night, at the traditional opening of the Special Leaders Retreat, a matanigasau was presented to leaders, signifying a “profound commitment towards the restoration of peace and dignity to the heart of the Vanua, the Fenua or the Whenua.”

At the dinner that followed, Prime Minister Rabuka paid tribute to the Pacific leaders of the past, and noted that the recent challenges within the Forum, “have, for me personally, reaffirmed the need for us as leaders, to make considered efforts to invest in the leadership potential within our region – but not just any kind of leadership – we need to invest in leadership that is contextualised, to our Pacific cultures and traditions.”

After today’s meeting, Prime Minister Brown said he had been reminded that “now we have unity and we have restored that unity in the Pacific, it is a duty and obligation of future members and leaders of the Forum to ensure that unity remains, and our family remains intact.”

Current Secretary General, Henry Puna, stated “today was about celebration for our being together again.”

He continued, “We now have everything we need to move ahead with clarity.”

The Forum’s next Secretary General, Baron Waqa told Islands Business that the Pacific Islands Forum is still developing, and while what has happened now is “on the right track”, he “will need to work harder in pushing for more solidarity.”

Luisa and Baron Waqa

Pacific island leaders today also agreed to work with Australia on its joint bid to host the COP31 climate summit, hold further discussions to better understand the challenges and opportunities of the seasonal labour mobility schemes in Australia and New Zealand, and reiterated their concerns over the threat of nuclear contamination as a result of discharge of treated waste water from Japan’s Fukushima reactor.

They have also agreed to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Pacific Island Forum Special Envoy in the United States.

While the Pacific islands region is often portrayed as a place of geopolitical tension, Prime Minister Brown said, “we regard ourselves as a region of peace, and the aim of our Forum is unity and prosperity for our countries. We don’t see ourselves as an area of contention. All of our countries have just come out of Covid with decreased economic activity, increased debt and so at this stage restoring our economic prosperity is important for us and we will look to all of our development partners that we have to assist us in what ways they can to ensure that our Pacific countries get their economic activities restored and get their levels of prosperity back to where they should be.”