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New head of fractured Pacific Forum stresses unity

by melanin
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Johnny BladesRNZ Pacific Journalistjohnny.blades@rnz.co.nz

Former Cook Islands Prime Minister, Henry Puna, was elected Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2021. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The new Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum says he will champion solidarity and unity within the pre-eminent regional grouping.

At his first press conference since taking up the role, Henry Puna spoke about the recent decision by five Micronesian countries to withdraw from the forum in protest at his appointment to the role.

Micronesia was unhappy that Pacific countries dishonoured a “gentleman’s agreement” to rotate the post evenly among sub-regions, saying it was Micronesia’s turn.

Palau, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia began the process of pulling out of the forum, though a review is now underway into how the position is appointed.

“There is a high level political dialogue process in place,” Puna explained at the virtual press conference.

“It is still ongoing, and has been set up by our forum leaders to be confidential and conducted in retreat style. I have no direct role in it.”

Puna said that despite occasional fallouts in the Pacific family, its current and future challenges were best addressed collectively.

Few challenges are more pressing than climate change and Covid-19.

Puna said the pandemic had hit the region very hard by exacerbating “already existing vulnerabilities because of climate change”.

“We all acknowledge that climate change is the most serious threat facing the Pacific, and we need to focus on what we can do and how we can engage with the rest of the world to get them to agree that this upcoming COP26 is a defining moment for our efforts to implement the rules as set out in the Paris Agreement.”

The former Cook Islands prime minister said “enough talk has been had already, and we need really to put action to those words.”

Covid-19 vaccination site, Northern Marianas. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Mark Rabago

Pressed on whether he was concerned with Australia’s continuing reliance on fossil fuels, Puna sounded a positive tone.

“I’m comforted by the fact that it is a matter of record that the Australian prime minister was part of the forum when we adopted – after significant debate – the Kainaki Declaration which is really our guiding document going into COP26 and moving forward on environmental issues.”

On environmental issues, Puna reflected briefly on widespread concerns among Pacific communities about the potential impacts of fledgling deep sea mining activities in the Pacific.

The government he recently led in the Cook Islands has opened its waters up to exploration by deep sea mining companies, but calls for a precautionary pause are getting louder. However Puna wouldn’t be drawn far on the matter.

“This is an ongoing process. It’s very much an issue that is under consideration and discussion among members, and I hope that soon we will have a regional position.

“But in those discussions, I am mindful of the sovereignty of each member state, in terms of matters that are exclusively within their sovereign domain, and we need to be cautious as to how we deal with this issue and how we address it.”

Geopolitics

Puna’s predecessor Dame Meg Taylor last month warned of the dangers posed by external influences being allowed to dictate terms in the Pacific Islands.

The new SG was asked whether he was frustrated that the Pacific was increasingly seen by large external powers through a geostrategic lens.

“We’re conscious that there are geopolitical games at play in our region, but that’s not a distraction for us, we don’t allow it to distract us from the priorities that we have,” he said.

According to him, the Pacific remained open to working with any development partners.

“Yes there are moves from China and the US to engage in the Pacific, but we’re always open in the Pacific to do business with partners that are willing to work with us, and that should be our priority and it is our priority always.”

Kanak independence supporters wave flags of the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front (FLNKS) after the referendum on independence on the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia in Noumea on October 4, 2020. (Photo by Theo Rouby / AFP) Photo: AFP or licensors

Puna was also asked whether French influence in the region had compromised the Pacific’s long-standing support for decolonisation, particularly given that French Polynesia and New Caledonia were now full members of the Forum, and with the latter having another looming independence referendum.

“I’m not aware of any pressure or any (political) games that are being played, and I certainly don’t expect any pressure form the French government on foreign policy within the region.”

West Papua

The Secretary-General has reiterated the region’s stand that the UN Human Rights Commissioner should be granted access to West Papua.

In 2019 forum leaders called on both Indonesia and the UN Commissioner to finalise the timing of a visit to West Papua, for an evidence-based report on alleged ongoing human rights abuses in the region.

The forum had sought the report by last September, but Secretary-General Henry Puna says the pandemic put a spanner in the works.

“Talking to the United Nations representative in Suva, just the other day, I conveyed the message that the forum is keen to see that visit take place.

“The problem of course is with Covid-19 at the moment, and I think we need to respect that.

“But we are very keen and looking forward to a report from that visit. We’ll be guided very much by how Covid-19 plays out and whether the West Papua border will reopen to allow that mission to go ahead,” he explained.

“My advice from the UN at the moment is that they are very keen to proceed, and it’s only a matter of time.”

Pacific Islands solidarity: hundreds of West Papuans attended a mourning event to mark the death of the head of Vanuatu’s Christian Council, Pastor Allen Nafuki, a prominent regional advocate of West Papuan self-determination rights. June 2021. Photo: Supplied

Nuclear

Meanwhile, Puna said the current internal issues in the forum – namely the Micronesian countries’ intention to withdraw – would not deter the Pacific’s focus on seeking answers from Japan on its plans to discharge treated nuclear waste water into the ocean.

“We’ve had a series of engagements both with Japan and also among ourselves,” Puna said.

“We also had a meeting with the head of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and the members still have some concerns that need to be resolved.

“Only the disclosure of information based on science will satisfy and appease the members.”

Given the toxic legacy of nuclear testing in the Pacific, Puna said the threat of more nuclear contamination was of significant concern to the health and security of the Blue Pacific continent.

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