May 16, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

During the recent crisis over the appointment of Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat's new Secretary General (former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna), much public debate occurred over the supposed "gentlemen's agreement" to share the leadership between Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.

There was little debate about the great regional challenges that actually face and defined Forum's leadership.

Once upon a time, the stopping of French nuclear tests in the Pacific, was such an issue that united all Pacific countries.

Economic integration in the Pacific via the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) and the Pacific Agreement of Closer Economic Relations (PACER) then took center stage.  But this issue has dwindled away as fairly empty agreements led by Australia and NZ were signed by all the countries, except the two largest (PNG and Fiji) who really needed to be part of the agreement to make it meaningful.

But to any knowledgeable international observer, there are three shocking omissions from the dialogue that need explanation: the genocide of West Papuan people, the suppression of the Kanak call for Independence in New Caledonia and the abject failure of Pacific peoples to identify with the plaintive pleas by the First People of Australia for full recognition.

One common threat in all these three issues is that the people suffering are all Melanesian people.

The second common thread is that the oppressors of these people are major donors with Forum Secretariat and some Pacific countries: France, Australia and Indonesia.

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In the September/October 2019 issue of this magazine, I reflected on the ‘Death of Pacific Regionalism?’ (also known as Pacific Islands Forum). It was a leading question in my mind at the time having just witnessed signs of fracture. I concluded as follows: “There is disunity within the collective. The collective’s power is stymied. The collective has been manifesting malaise that points to, inter alia, inherent structural and compositional flaws. In the meantime, intense geopolitics in the region require self-re-examination of the Forum with fresh vigour, purpose and destiny. The proposed 2050 strategic plan needs to look seriously at refitting Pacific regionalism anew for the new challenges tomorrow.”

The fracture became a break when disunity reigned in February. The five Micronesian members withdrew their PIF membership following the divisive events of the virtual election of new Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) Secretary General (SG) Henry Puna.

The divisive mood prevailing at the time was not aided by Fiji’s deportation of Vice Chancellor and President (VCP) Professor Pal Ahluwalia of the regional University of the South Pacific (USP) about the same time as the elections. Fiji, in the eyes of many PIF/USP members, had been undermining the University’s governance structure, specifically the work of the USP Council. These members see such intervention by Fiji as unwelcome and as an unduly exercise of its influence – it being a large contributor to the University budget, the largest beneficiary and as its host.

The Micronesians’ withdrawal resulted essentially from their dissatisfaction with the loss of their candidate for the SG position when it was their turn for PIFS leadership role under a long-standing ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. In the eyes of the Micronesians, the unwritten rule of behaviour for the group was not honoured. National politics, subregional and geopolitical sensibilities should have gone in the way of regional solidarity, in their view.

The Micronesians’ withdrawal of their membership put an end to Pacific regionalism or PIF, as we have known it since 2000. Regional Leaders then had agreed to switch name of the group from the South Pacific Forum (SPF) to PIF to reflect its wider country membership at the time.

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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.

 

In 1997, he left the air-conditioning and comfort of capital life for the remote atoll of Manihiki, 1,200 kilometres north of Rarotonga, where temperatures average ten degrees higher, in the 30s celsius. 

There he started a pearl farm, a labour intensive and sometimes risky business - the atoll lost 20 lives to a cyclone that year. Puna's arrival on the atoll was one of the few  in an outward stream of survivors, with the population dropping from a high of 800 when pearl farming was booming, to 400 that year; and just 200 a decade later.

Soon enough though, Puna was on the move again, accepting an appointment in 1999 as the country’s High Commissioner to Wellington. By 2004, Puna was back in Manihiki, contesting the seat against then prime minister, Dr Robert Woonton. Puna lost - but won an electoral appeal, and the resulting by-election.

From there, Puna moved up through the ranks, taking over the prime ministership in 2010, after the resignation of former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Henry. 

Perhaps Puna's most lasting legacy as prime minister would be a central role establishing Marae Moana, what the country claims as the world's largest "multi-use"marine park. His invitation to overseas experts that had helped set up a similar effort in Kiribati helped cut through turf battles among secretive local officials. Holding open public meetings, the experts overcame initial suspicion among a public wary of top-secret think-big schemes like an earlier disastrous Italian hotel project, and won wide support.

But his critics point to a less welcome legacies - including accusations of corruption, bolstered by a failure to provide proper audit reports, stretching back years. 

Responding to the controversy that surrounded Puna’s selection as Forum Secretary General, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said in nominating him, “We were guided first and foremost by the 2002 decision of Forum Leaders that candidates for the position must be assessed on their merits taking into account the circumstances at the time of selection. In light of the enormous challenges facing our region at this time, including the impact of COVID-19 on our region, my Government was pleased to nominate our former Prime Minister, Mr Henry Puna, as Secretary General.  It was the first time in the Forum’s 50-year history that the Cook Islands had nominated a candidate for that position.

“My Government is grateful for the support of Leaders for Mr Puna as Secretary General, we are saddened by the subsequent decision by Leaders of Micronesia taken during the subsequent Micronesian Presidents’ Summit to withdraw from the Forum.”

Brown said he is committed to working with other Forum leaders to review the appointment procedures for the Secretary General so all Forum members have a fair and equitable opportunity to serve the region.

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.

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