The new secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum has said he will champion solidarity and unity within the preeminent regional group.
In his first press conference since taking office, Henry Puna spoke about the recent decision by five Micronesian countries to withdraw from the Forum to protest his appointment to this post.
Micronesia was unhappy that the Pacific countries had disgraced a “gentleman’s agreement” to rotate the post equally among sub-regions, saying it was Micronesia’s turn.
Palau, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia have started the process of withdrawing from the Forum, although a review is currently underway on how the position is appointed.
“A high-level political dialogue process is in place,” Puna explained during the virtual press conference.
“It is still ongoing and was set up by our Forum leaders to be confidential and conducted in the style of a retreat. I have no direct role in it.
Puna said that despite the occasional fallout in the Pacific family, her current and future challenges are best handled collectively.
Few challenges are more urgent than climate change and Covid-19.
Puna said the pandemic had hit the region very hard by exacerbating “already existing vulnerabilities due to climate change”.
The former prime minister of the Cook Islands said it was important for Pacific countries to continue working with their partners towards a post-pandemic recovery.
“In this regard, our finance and economics ministers will meet soon to help advance the initiatives that have been identified by officials and my ministers to assist the recovery of our nations in this direction.
“So Australia, I want to thank you, and New Zealand, thank you very much for the immediate and continued assistance that has been offered to the Pacific Island countries and our other development partners such as China and the United States. others, they’ve also stepped up.
Pressed by climate change and though he was concerned about Australia’s continued dependence on fossil fuels, Puna rang a positive tone.
“I am comforted by the fact that it is well known that the Australian Prime Minister was part of the Forum when we adopted – after extensive debate – the Kainaki Declaration which is really our guiding document for COP 26 and to go forward environmental issues. “
On environmental issues, Puna briefly touched on the widespread concerns among Pacific communities regarding the potential impacts of emerging high seas mining activities in the Pacific.
The government he recently led in the Cook Islands has opened its waters to exploration by deep-sea mining companies, but calls for a precautionary pause are growing louder. However Puna would not be pulled far on the matter.
“This is an on-going process. It really is an issue that is being looked at and discussed among members, and I hope we will have a regional position soon.
“But in these discussions, I am aware of the sovereignty of each member state, in terms of matters that fall exclusively within their sovereign domain, and we have to be careful about how we deal with this problem and how we deal with it.”
Puna’s predecessor Dame Meg Taylor warned last month of the dangers posed by outside influences allowed to dictate conditions in the Pacific Islands.
The new SG was asked if he was frustrated that the Pacific was increasingly seen by major outside powers through a geostrategic lens.
“We are aware that there are geopolitical games at play in our region, but it is not a distraction for us, we do not allow it to distract us from the priorities we have,” he said. .
According to him, the Pacific remained open to working with any development partner.
“Yes, there are initiatives from China and the United States to engage in the Pacific, but we are still open in the Pacific to do business with partners willing to work with us, and that should be our priority and it is always our priority. . “
Puna was also asked whether French influence in the region had compromised the Pacific’s long-standing support for decolonization, especially since French Polynesia and New Caledonia were now full members of the Forum, and that the latter had another independence referendum imminent.
“I am not aware of any pressure or any (political) game being played, and I certainly do not expect any pressure from the French government on foreign policy in the region.
The Secretary-General reiterated the region’s position that the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights should have access to West Papua.
In 2019, Forum leaders called on Indonesia and the UN Commissioner to finalize a schedule for a visit to West Papua, for an evidence-based report on alleged ongoing human rights violations in the region.
The Forum requested the report last September, but Secretary-General Henry Puna said the pandemic had put a damper on the road.
“In addressing the United Nations representative in Suva the other day, I conveyed the message that the Forum is very keen for this visit to take place.
“The problem of course is with Covid-19 right now, and I think we have to respect that.
“But we are very excited and look forward to a report from this visit. We will be very guided by how Covid-19 unfolds and whether the West Papua border reopens to allow this mission to continue, ”he explained.
“My advice from the UN at the moment is that they are very keen to move forward, and it is only a matter of time.”
Meanwhile, Puna said the Forum’s current internal issues – namely the intention of Micronesian countries to withdraw – would not prevent the Pacific from focusing on finding responses from Japan to its plans to discharge the waters. nuclear waste processed in the ocean.
“We had a series of engagements both with Japan and between us,” Puna said.
“We also had a meeting with the head of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and members still have concerns that need to be resolved.
“Only the disclosure of science-based information will satisfy and appease members.”
Given the toxic legacy of nuclear testing in the Pacific, Puna said the threat of further nuclear contamination is a major concern for the health and safety of the Pacific Blue Continent.