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Op-ed by Maureen Penjueli
Since the election of Henry Puna for the Secretary General (SG) position for the region’s top job at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), the rules and procedures for selection of SG has brought under the spotlight, the reform agenda at the Forum. The controversial election process pushed by the Cook Islands, supported by the Polynesian bloc, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand to challenge and ultimately deny the Micronesian Candidate Ambassador Gerald Zackios the job.
The Micronesian leaders mandate was clear; it was their candidate’s turn based on an unwritten agreement. They were also clear on the consequences of not honoring this unwritten agreement. The Federated States of Micronesia and Palau have since initiated formal procedures to withdraw from the Forum and their embassies from Fiji within a year.
The existence and practice of the agreement is now being confirmed by Pacific leaders including the Former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, Vanuatu Opposition leader, Ralph Regenvanu, the Former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Peter O’Neil, which is also supported by the current Prime Minister, James Marape. Polynesia’s elder statesman and Samoan Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Malielegaoi, also affirmed the Pacific Way, as well as the need to consider rotation as the basis for which the SG position is adopted within the Forum reform process.
Former President Anote Tong in Islands Business (February 2021) interview explains how the agreement came about in 1978 after a disagreement between Fiji and Samoa over the extension of the then SG Mahe Tupouniua.
The dispute led to an agreement that the SG position would be rotated between the three sub-regions, and that Australia and New Zealand (metropolitan partners) would not field a candidate along with Fiji as host country to the Forum Secretariat. The intention was to ensure a fair and balanced representation of the sub-regions and to recognize the power asymmetry possessed by Australia, NZ, and Fiji as the hub of the region privileged to host these regional institutions. It was a values-based agreement made by Pacific leaders whose wisdom has guided the region through some of our most turbulent times, including nuclear testing and independence struggles. The understanding also allowed the region to act in solidarity and unity to gain global prominence on issues of regional significance, until now.
The push to reform the selection process is now outlined in the 2021 Pacific Islands Forum Special Leaders Retreat outcome statement, produced after the election, which reads;
“Leaders agreed to review the 2002 Appointment Procedures for the Secretary General and mandated the Forum Officials Committee to develop a selection process for Leaders’ consideration.
A google search for the 2002 Appointment Procedures for the Secretary General will not show any document–it is not publicly available. The only publicly available document, the 2005 Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum provides some guidance in Article VI Appointment of Secretariat Staff. Article VI.2 states “the Secretary General shall be appointed by the Forum Leaders under such conditions as the Forum Leaders may determine”. It goes on further to add that, “If for any reason the post of Secretary General is vacant, the Deputy Secretary General shall be directed by the Forum Chair to carry out the functions of the SG on an interim basis until the position is filled”.
The article provides the flexibility to accommodate both the Pacific Way and the possibility of a rules-based procedure depending on the mandate of leaders.
PANG has viewed the 2002 document referenced in the 2021 Special Leaders retreat which has been used to support the selection process which saw Henry Puna narrowly win the vote.
The 2002 document is titled Annex A: Extract from the Decisions of the Forum Leaders’ Retreat at the Thirty-Third Pacific Islands Forum, Suva, Fiji, 15 -17 August 2002. The document outlines the Appointment Procedures for the Secretary General in 5 bullet points. The response by the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Mark Brown to defend Henry Puna’s selection is based upon the 2002 document is a marked departure from the Pacific Way.
In an interview on 31st October, 2020 on Radio NZ, the Chair of the Forum Kausea Natano, understanding the true nature of the dispute, pleaded with the membership to resolve the crises over the row over the top job. He hinted that the technocrats were clearly developing options to help members, including voting procedures for elimination rounds but these were only options.
The February 3rd vote, only the second in the Forum’s history, reflected the split between those that supported the unwritten agreement and those that support a merit rules-based agreement.
Every capital in the South Pacific has finally woken up to consequences of not honoring the Pacific Way and pushing through a merit, rules-based system. In a November 2020, interview with the Cook Islands News, the Cook Islands, Opposition Leader Tina Browne, expressed the need for the Cook Islands to honor the widely acknowledged unwritten agreement and cautioned the Cook Islands Government to heed the real risk of a fracture of the region. Since the vote on the 3rd of February, Tina Browne has gone further to ask for the withdrawal of Henry Puna as SG. She expressed her view that Henry Puna, the Cook Islands candidate, would go down in history as to the reason the region fractured.
Although the situation remains bleak, there are some bright lights on the horizon, the North Pacific leaders will not challenge Henry Puna’s position as reflected in the 2021 Special Leaders retreat communique, they have offered a one-year transition period, and they are clear they are ready to negotiate but the offer to come back to the table to discuss future options must include ‘monumental reform of the PIF’.
It is promising to see the Chair of the Forum, Kausea Natano, met with the Micronesian Leaders at a special summit this week to better understand the position of the Micronesian countries and to encourage their engagement in the review of the selection process for the SG.
Also, encouraging is to see the PM of PNG and Samoa PM providing support for the Pacific Way as the basis for the reform of the selection criteria and to remove the ambiguity surrounding the understanding of the unwritten agreement. Also critical in the reform for the SG position, there must be clarity around the role of metropolitan partners as well as host country obligations and responsibilities. Fiji’s PM Frank Bainimarama as the incoming chair has called for regional solidarity and unity to address the magnitude of the existential crises.
The region desperately needs unity and solidarity today to address the multitude of existential crises and the geopolitical consequences of our fracture. It remains to be seen whether there is a willingness for public recognition and appreciation for the Northern Pacific leaders’ position from our metropolitan partners, and other Polynesian countries. Unless there is public recognition there can be no reconciliation and without reconciliation there can be no solidarity nor unity.
Maureen Penjueli is the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, a regional NGO that promotes the right for Pacific islands to be self-determining.
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