Pacific leaders pose for a group photograph on One Foot Island after attending the Leaders’ Retreat during the Pacific Islands Forum at Aitutaki on Thursday. Picture: MFAI/ 23111001
Though leaders from the region did not agree on all the matters they discussed during this week’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, there’s one thing no one disputes: the people of the Cook Islands staged a spectacular event, writes Rachel Reeves.
During a press conference on an Aitutaki beach Thursday
evening, Tonga’s prime minister, Hu’akavemeiliku Siaosi Sovaleni, remarked on
the “impressive setup and hospitality” he saw this week, noting the meeting
sets a high bar for Tonga, which will host next year’s Forum leaders’ meeting.
“(We are) actually seeing what we can do in terms of
learning from what Cook Islands has done,” he said, offering his
congratulations to the host country for a “very beautiful” event.
The beauty was perhaps best demonstrated by Monday
night’s opening ceremony – an explosion of colour and culture attended by two
thousand spectators from around the region and world.
The effort that went into the ceremony was apparent in
the details: enormous flower arrangements, maire ei, printed banners, a green
carpet of leaves leading into the Auditorium. It was evident in larger ways,
too: a specially produced video showcasing Pacific culture, a feast of Cook
Islands proportions, a 200-person production for which drummers and dancers
spent months rehearsing.
The opening ceremony of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting at Te Are Karioi National Auditorium. MELINA ETCHES/23111078
Nearly 800 people arrived for the Forum this week,
aboard passenger planes and chartered jets and military aircraft. They included
leaders of nations that belong to the Pacific Islands Forum and their
delegations (some of which comprised more than 20 people), representatives of
partner and observer nations, regional agencies, and donor organisations.
Others, who were not directly involved in Forum
discussions but interested in the region, from hedge fund managers to
Indigenous activists, attended also. The President of the United Nations
General Assembly participated for the first time in the Forum’s 52-year
‘The organisers were sleepless’
The Forum Leaders’ Meeting was preceded by four solid
months of planning, according to members of the organising team known as the
Planning began in earnest in June, when leaders of
countries belonging to the Forum approved what became known as the Suva
Agreement, which intended to reunite the organisation after a rift wrought by
the issue of who should be the organisation’s secretary-general.
From then on, a team headed by the secretary of
foreign affairs, Tepaeru Herrmann, hit the ground running and didn’t stop
running until last night when the Forum officially ended.
Partners such as Australia, New Zealand, and the
People’s Republic of China offered financial support to defray costs, freeing
the core team to focus on planning to host 650 delegates and 80 media
The Akirata Cultural Dance Troupe greeted every Leaders at the Rarotonga International Airport. MELINA ETCHES/23111079
Still, the team was small and the workload was large.
“We had to deliver business as usual – that doesn’t go
on pause while you plan to prepare for the hosting, and you’re running a very
small workforce,” Herrmann said. “Our programme speaks to very small but very
connected workforce, predominantly volunteers, but also public servants who
have been seconded who understood what the brief was and just pushed ahead.”
There were processes to follow around inviting special
guests, such as Saudi Arabia, whose government committed $50 million to the
region. There was a theme to choose; the team reviewed a half-century’s worth
of themes from Forum leaders’ meetings, agonised over options, then settled on
“Our Voices, Our Choices, Our Pacific Way: Promote, Prosper, Partner”. MFAI’s
policy team attended meetings with teams from all nations belonging to the
MFAI’s logistics team, led by Amelia Fukofuka-Murare,
took the lead in coordinating such logistics as travel, accommodation,
security, catering, transportation, communication, medical support,
registration, and accreditation.
“The hours were crazy,” said Josh Baker, who was part
of the core team. “A lot of sleepless nights. I’m so proud of our Cook
Islanders who dedicated their time and their energy and their love toward
amplifying the Pacific Islands Forum.”
“The organisers were sleepless,” agreed Sosikeni Lesa of
SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme), who led
communications for the event.
Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting welcoming ceremony in Aitutaki. From Left: Cook Islands Thomas Peyroux and Maki Karati flew in from New Zealand to help with communications, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration (MFAI) – Tepaeru Herrmann. MELINA ETCHES/23111047
Other arms of the Cook Islands government also did
Te Marae Ora conducted a tutaka the week before the
Forum, ensuring yards were tidy and rubbish was raked. The Ministry of Internal
Affairs arranged for trees to be trimmed. Te Aponga Uira strung coloured
streetlights around town. The Cook Islands Police rehearsed its motorcade ahead
of the leaders’ arrival and attended security training to become “close
protection officers”, or CPOs.
Cook Islanders not affiliated with the public service
contributed to the planning of the Forum, too.
“I can’t say thank you enough to the number of
government agencies, but also community groups, volunteers, even private sector
entities, who stepped up,” Herrmann said. “Everyone came on board.”
TAV made custom uniforms for leaders. Drivers
practiced their routes. Punanga Nui vendors brought their best: akari pi from
Mauke, rito craft from Tongareva, pearls from Manihiki, chutneys from Atiu,
produce from Rarotonga.
Lesa, who has attended many Forum leaders’ meetings,
was particularly struck by how much of the Cook Islands community participated
in the planning and execution of government’s vision.
“Every country that hosts a Forum puts extra effort
into making sure it’s successful, but what stands out for me was the community
involvement,” he said. “How people came together during that opening ceremony –
that would be easily the highlight for me.”
Alongside the formal programme of discussions and
meetings, the core team also ran what Herrmann calls an “informal programme”,
centred mostly around the Punanga Nui marketplace. This week the area was
transformed into a “pavilion”, where a range of organisations set up booths to
highlight their work, such as providing insurance for disasters, supporting the
transition to renewable energy, educating Pacific Islanders, preserving
culture, and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Each booth correlated
with a discussion being held amongst leaders.
Welcoming guests at the opening ceremony of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting with ei maire at Te Are Karioi National Auditorium. MELINA ETCHES/23111078
“The pavilion started off as sort of a little idea a
few months ago, and then it turned into the carnival that we hoped it would
be,” Herrmann said. “What we were really trying to do there is collide leaders
with grassroots, with our communities, and the Punanga Nui was the perfect
manifestation of that.”
Born after the destruction of Cyclone Sally, the
Punanga Nui market has for three decades been fostering entrepreneurship and
allowing people to support their families, including during the Covid-19
pandemic that halted tourism.
There were side events at the pavilion, too, which
provoked engaging conversations amongst panelists and featured presentations
about work being done in various areas, including deep-sea research, plastic
pollution, and management of the high seas.
The result of months of planning and coordination was
a flawless Forum, easy for visitors to navigate and memorable for everyone
involved. Attending the Forum as a reporter in 2023 was a different experience from
attending the Forum as a reporter in 2012, which was the last time the Cook
Islands hosted the event. A team took care of the media delegation, convening
press conferences, sending daily email updates, and providing outlets and
office space. There was access to free Wi-Fi at every Forum-related location.
“In the Pacific, it’s such a challenge to host these
events because of the manpower, the resources, the finances, the skills and
expertise on the ground required – that’s all a challenge,” Lesa said. “Everybody
really pulled together.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights' 75th anniversary, a Dialogue side event on the value people-centred development. MELINA ETCHES/23111071
On the issues
Though this week’s meeting laid bare some fissures in
the fabric of the Forum, most leaders spoke about the value of solidarity and
unity across the Pacific illustrated during this week’s meeting.
UN General Assembly President Dennis Francis said
during a press conference that “we have to work together to unify all positions
in order to address the challenges we face”. Pacific Islands Forum
Secretary-General Henry Puna talked at Wednesday’s plenary session about how
solidarity is “key to capitalising on … opportunities and overcoming shared
complexities”. At the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Mark Brown catalogued
the challenges of the current historical moment and said: “More than ever, we
must stand united, work collectively, to ensure the security and prosperity of
Leaders did negotiate, reach, and sign agreements this
week pertaining to gender equality, stamping out corruption, climate financing
and mobility, and safeguarding the region against nuclear threats.
They agreed on the document that will shape the
region’s policy through 2050, as well as the document that will shape the
relationship between the European Union and African, Caribbean, and Pacific
countries. They agreed on who would represent the region at COP28, the
international climate conference in Dubai later this month.
But while their discussions were centred on
collaboration and cooperation, they were sometimes hamstrung by differences,
such as loyalties to and relationships with such players as China and Japan or
approaches to ocean management.
Nauru’s president, David Adeang, walked out of a
meeting over the selection of the Forum’s next secretary-general, which leaders
agreed Thursday will be Nauru’s former president Baron Waqa. Adeang did not
attend the leaders’ retreat on Aitutaki, at which various agreements were
Some leaders voted against a humanitarian resolution
between Israel and Gaza; others, including the Cook Islands, voted in favour;
still others remained silent. Leaders also disagreed on the issue of Japan’s
intent to release a million tonnes of nuclear wastewater into the Pacific
Ocean, as well as on the acceleration of efforts to mine the deep sea.
While the Cook Islands government gifted a deep-sea
nodule encased in a miniature vaka to every visiting leader and invited the
Seabed Minerals Authority, as well as companies licensed to explore the
country’s waters for nodules, to speak at the pavilion, not all Forum members
are supportive of deep-sea mining, at least in the way it’s being presently
“You know, one thing that we share as Pacific Islands,
is we share one ocean,” Palau’s president, Surangel Whipps Jr., said before a
Tuesday night screening of “Deep Rising”, a documentary about the risks of
deep-sea mining narrated by Hollywood actor Jason Momoa. “And that one ocean we
share, we may be doing something over here, but it impacts our neighbour,
impacts all of us.” His country supports a moratorium, or precautionary pause,
During a press conference after Thursday’s leaders’
retreat on the Aitutaki lagoon, Prime Minister Brown acknowledged the
disagreements among leaders this week and framed them as positive.
“There are some issues where collectively we are very,
very able, very strong and manage certain issues very well, and fisheries is a
good example of that,” he said. “There are issues where we have a divide in our
positions. And rather than viewing that as a weakness in our organisation, I
see it as a strength in each country being able to take a position and stand on
their position without having to rely on others to follow it. So in that
regard, that diversity is one of (the Forum’s) strengths.”
‘For whom they toil’
Despite differences of opinion on specific issues,
this week’s Forum leaders’ meeting represented a reunification of what was
recently a fractured organisation. Part of the Cook Islands government’s vision
for this event, Herrmann explained, was to create a space for leaders to come
together to remember and honour “those for whom they toil”, she said: the
people of the Pacific.
She expressed gratitude for the government’s
“confidence in what is a pretty small team being able to take the political
aspirations, turn it into a vision, and then corral the nation behind that
vision and that aspiration and deliver it as a truly national delivery
involving so many Cook Islanders, be they the teams marking the roads in the
sprint leading up to the forum, be they the mamas who have been busy handicraft
making, or those looking after the delegates. It’s been a truly humbling
experience, the manner in which our people have just embraced the vision. And
we know it will serve the Pacific well, what we have delivered, because we see
it and how the leaders who were – let’s not forget – broken and fractured and
have now pulled together strongly.”
For Herrmann, the Forum was special for attendees but
also impactful on a wider scale, given the attention paid by regional and
international media outlets.
“I think it’s affirming to see the Internet explode
with Pacific voices showcasing Pacific choices in a uniquely Pacific way … The
more voices that go out there with Pacific faces that have Pacific lens and how
they see the world, I think, the more enriched the world will be,” she said.