Feb 27, 2021 Last Updated 4:38 AM, Feb 26, 2021

Who is Henry Puna?

Who is Henry Puna?

One vote - and a hundred million, or so, in unaudited assets.

Few candidates have as slim a mandate as the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. Just one vote separated him from Marshall Islands’ diplomat, Ambassador Gerald Zackios.

So, who is Henry Puna?

Born 29 July 1949 on his home island of Aitutaki, Puna would spend most of his life 110km south on the main capital island of Rarotonga. Like many from the former WW2 allied air base, his family has a rich political history. His father was a member of the colonial-era legislative assembly, and two brothers served as cabinet ministers in earlier cabinets under self-government. Another served as a long-time Clerk of Parliament.

From Rarotonga, just a 30 kilometres round-island trip by circular coastal road, Puna would join dozens of Cook Islanders studying overseas; law at the universities of Auckland, and Tasmania, before being admitted to the bar in Canberra.

Back home in the Cook Islands, Puna set up his own legal partnership Miller Puna, and filled various government posts, including Trade secretary.

So far, so normal for a son of an urban elite.

Unlike most, however, Puna went beyond office work.

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In 1971, the leaders of five independent island nations established the South Pacific Forum, with support from Australia and New Zealand. They wanted to talk about political issues like nuclear testing, self-determination and inter-island trade, topics that couldn’t be debated in the South Pacific Commission because of the colonial powers that dominated the regional organisation.

Fifty years on, the SPF is the Pacific Islands Forum. The name change reflects the growing Forum membership and the expansion to include Micronesian nations from the northern Pacific, as well as two French dependencies.

That outreach is now shattered. Five Micronesian countries have announced their planned withdrawal from the Forum, after the election of Henry Puna as successor to outgoing Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor. In a close vote at a Special Leaders’ Retreat on 3 February, the former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands defeated Marshall Islands Ambassador to the United States Gerald Zackios for the post, despite united support from the Micronesian nations for the Marshallese diplomat.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis has exacerbated many fault lines within Pacific nations, but have also disrupted regional unity and exposed long-simmering resentments. The Forum drama comes at a time there’s a desperate need for collective action on climate change, economic recovery and the roll-out of life-saving vaccines.

In April last year, as the pandemic started to bite, outgoing Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor gave an interview to Islands Business. She highlighted the need for Presidents and Prime Ministers to work collectively across the region, despite the priority each leader must give to their own citizens: “Everybody’s gone into an isolationist position because you’ve got to look after yourself first. Thinking of how we can all work together is not your natural instinct. But the Secretary General of the United Nations has really been driving this home: you have to work with the collective. That’s the job all Secretary Generals have – and the job I have.”

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.

COVID-19 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.

Pacific island nations can learn from the early roll-out of coronavirus vaccines in the north Pacific says the World Health Organisation’s  Representative in the South Pacific.

The Pacific’s COVID response is on the agenda of today’s Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders virtual retreat, along with the election of a new PIF Secretary General and action on climate change. A number of PIF members—including Marshall Islands, Federated States of  Micronesia, Palau—are already vaccinating their citizens.

WHO’s Dr Corinne Capuano says while their initial projections were to see the vaccine rollout in the second half of this year in the South Pacific, there is a lot of work being done and it may be earlier, although it’s a complex issue. Forum members are talking to their development partners about vaccine procurement as  COVAX is not expected to meet all vaccine requirements.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus recently said the world faces moral failure if it doesn’t ensure vaccine equity. “Rich countries are rolling out vaccines, while the world’s least-developed countries watch and wait,” he said, challenging world and health leaders to ensure that vaccination of health workers and older people is underway in all countries within the first 100 days of 2021.

It’s a message the next Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama reiterated when he opened the Pacific Island Forum’s reconstructed fale in Suva last week: “With vaccines rolling out across the developed world, we must not allow our region to be cast to the fate of “immunity inequality”. Our people must be kept protected. Our economies must keep pace with what may well be the most important economic recovery in a century. For that to happen, COVID-19 vaccines must become available to our citizens, not months or – God forbid – years after the developed nations, but alongside them. Because we know none of us is safe, until all of us are.”

Suva-based Dr Capuano says there are things to be learnt from vaccination campaigns already underway, including logistics such as cold chain management, and the importance of identifying priority recipients, that is, people most at risk of being exposed to the disease such as health care workers and people working at our borders.

She says dealing with any side effects will also be important; “making sure you have in place systems that are able to deal with any side effects. It is important that you can take care of any side effects after the vaccination and that you have a surveillance system in place so you can monitor what is happening after vaccination.

“The other element is that the vaccine that is currently used in the Pacific requires two doses of injections, so you also want to make sure that you provide full vaccination to people, so you have a registering system that is allowing you to ensure that if people that get the first dose, they get the second as well.”

Dr Capuano cautions that the vaccine is “not a magic bullet” and “non-pharmaceutical interventions”—handwashing, physical distancing and the wearing of masks—remain important, especially in places with community transmission.

She says Fiji and other Pacific nations have been “working very hard” to prepare for vaccine deployment, including messages to overcome the so-called vaccine hesitancy that has been seen in some other countries.

“As the campaign is rolling in other countries in the world, people also see what is going on and that this is the value of being vaccinated. So we see a lot of critical information coming from other parts of the world that can be useful for the Pacific.”

Dr Capuano made the comments at the recent signing of an agreement between the WHO, European Union, United Nations Food Programme and Pacific Community to strengthen the health sector across the Pacific. The European Union has repurposed US$24 million under the EU-Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Financing Agreement to fund this work in Cook Islands, Kiribati, Fiji, the Republic of Marshall Island, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.  

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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