Pacific leaders have appointed Henry Puna, former Prime Minister of Cook Islands, as the new Secretary General for the Pacific Islands Forum.
The decision came late at night at the Forum Special Leaders Retreat, after a lengthy and contentious online summit. As the night wore on, it was clear that leaders were unable to reach a consensus about a successor to current Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor. In an unprecedented situation, the leaders conducted a series of telephone votes to choose a candidate from amongst the five people running for the position. In a close decision, Puna defeated Marshall Islands Ambassador Gerald Zackios in the final round of voting.
The Special Leaders Retreat had been postponed numerous times in 2020, after the annual Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Vanuatu was postponed because of the global coronavirus pandemic. Forum leaders still need to meet to address the triple challenge now facing the Pacific: the ongoing climate crisis; the challenge to medical systems and community health from the pandemic; and the associated economic crisis caused by border closures, disruption of supply chains, the collapse of overseas tourism and associated job losses.
These challenges are exacerbating political, cultural and social fault lines across the region. In the last few days, the New Caledonia government has collapsed in a no-confidence motion and the Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific (USP) has been detained and deported by Fiji authorities. The brawl over Forum leadership has exacerbated longstanding concerns from some Smaller Island States (SIS) that the Forum is not prioritising their concerns.
New Secretary General
Apart from the regional response to Covid-19, the key agenda item for the summit was the appointment of a successor to Dame Meg Taylor, the first woman to hold the position of Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat in Suva. After the summit, leaders thanked Taylor for her ‘stellar’ performance as she ends two terms of office.
Five candidates, from Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Marshall Islands, were nominated. Under former President of Palau Tommy Remengesau Jr and his newly elected successor Surangel Whipps, Palau has been at the forefront of a joint push to appoint RMI diplomat Gerald Zackios to the post (the last Micronesian as Secretary General was former Kiribati President Ieremia Tabai in 1992-8). Both Palauan leaders have threatened to walk away from the regional organisation if Zackios was not appointed.
Speaking to journalists after the summit, Forum Chair Kausea Natano, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, stressed that the Forum was unified: “We have resolved everything and will continue to work together.”
This confidence is belied by the ongoing anger evident amongst some Micronesian leaders. Speaking to Palauan journalist Bernadette Carreon after the meeting, President Whipps expressed his disappointment, stating: “The South Pacific and larger countries stay together. Although we call this organisation the Pacific Islands Forum, its acting like the South Pacific Forum. Clearly there is no need really for Micronesia to be part of them, they don’t really consider us part of them.”
Prime Minister Natano said the Forum Secretariat had been tasked with preparing a study on the method of appointing the Secretary General and other senior regional positions. But in coming weeks, the unity of the wider Forum will be challenged as the Micronesian bloc determines their response.
The other key agenda item was the regional response to Covid-19 and the health and economic impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement after the meeting, leaders acknowledged “the region’s efforts to date to manage the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Pacific region, including through the establishment and operationalisation of the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19.”
Islands nations have called for the equitable distribution of safe and effective vaccines across the region, at a time of production bottlenecks in Europe and the danger that a lengthy roll-out of vaccines will exacerbate economic impacts due to the loss of travel and tourism.
In a statement before the meeting, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “Australia has committed A$200 million to help deliver the roll-out of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines to protect our Pacific neighbours. This is in addition to A$80 million to the Gavi COVAX Facility’s Advance Market Commitment, to provide vaccines to the highest-risk groups in eligible countries, including in the Pacific.”
Island leaders welcomed support from Australia and New Zealand to secure vaccines for all Pacific people as well as “the multilateral and bilateral partnerships working to ensure one hundred percent coverage.”
Natano confirmed that “some countries will receive vaccines from China, Taiwan and other partners.” Already, France is providing vaccines to its Pacific dependencies and the United States is rolling out support in the US territories and three Freely Associated States. China has pledged support to developing country partners.
With the Astra-Zeneca vaccine to be produced by CSL laboratories in Australia, Dame Meg Taylor welcomed Morrison’s pledge of support, but confirmed there was no fixed timeline for the roll-out of vaccines across the regions. At the summit, leaders tasked Pacific health ministers to evaluate needs and logistics, and report back later this year.
Taylor told Islands Business: “All our countries have signed up to COVAX and a lot of the discussion was about how we’re going to access that, the costs etc.”
She added: “The Prime Minister of Australia did make commitments about finance, so that vaccinations will be available through the region and assured us about Astra-Zeneca production in Australia. That was received well by our leaders, to know that there would be vaccines not far away. There was a commitment that all the Pacific – in time – will get the vaccination. How all this rolls out will depend on supplies.”
As incoming Secretary General, Puna will face significant challenges in the regional agenda, including preparations for the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow; US-China tensions as the new Biden administration settles in; as well as regional debates over human rights and self-determination in West Papua, Bougainville and New Caledonia (The French dependency was the one Forum member not represented at the online summit, following the collapse of the government led by outgoing President Thierry Santa this week, in the midst of a tropical cyclone).
The incoming Secretary General will have to advance the Forum’s ‘Blue Pacific’ agenda, developing a 2050 strategy for the management and sustainable development of oceans, maritime resources and fisheries. With Puna as Prime Minister, Cook Islands has been a strong supporter of deep sea mining (DSM), which will raise concern amongst civil society groups that have been campaigning for a total ban on DSM within territorial waters and areas beyond national jurisdiction.
All these crises highlight the stresses on Pacific regionalism and the prospects for unified collective action to address the COVID and climate emergencies. Henry Puna will have a full in-tray when he assumes office.
For more analysis look out for the February issue of Islands Business magazine.
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.
There have been no cases of coronavirus reported in the Pacific Islands region, although Australia and New Zealand have reported cases, and in the case of Australia, one death.
However the Pacific region has responded with a series of travel advisories and requirements.
These are constantly being updated, but here is the most recent series of requirements, as of March 2.
Federated States of Micronesia
Nauru has announced entry restrictions for any travellers who have travelled from or through China in the 21 days prior to traveling to Nauru. The same restriction applies to travel from or through areas with a “publicly stated outbreak” or other areas of outbreak concern specified by the Nauru Ministry of Health and Medical Services.
Wallis and Futuna