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Ambassador returns to ‘contact sport’ of diplomacy in the Cook Islands

Thursday 8 December 2022 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Local, National, Sports

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The European Union’s ambassador to the Pacific says even small nations such as the Cook Islands have a role to play in world diplomacy. Sujiro Seam is in the Cook Islands this week to present his letters of credence to the King’s Representative Sir Tom Marsters.

He also met Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, and was due to give a talk to the University of the South Pacific Cook Islands campus.

Seam said this was his first visit to the Cook Islands – he had planned a visit in March 2020, but Covid-19 border closures put a stop to this.

“Of course, the best approach to preventing the spread of Covid-19 was to close borders, so the population could be kept safe,” Seam said.

Seam said he turned down the opportunity to present his letters of credence virtually, but instead chose to wait for an opportunity to visit the Cook Islands.

“The protectionist strategy was very effective, especially in countries like the Cook Islands. But the main drawback of the Covid-19 lockdowns was the isolation,” he said.

“We had to work with virtual diplomacy, which is the best you can get at the time of a pandemic, but still not great. Diplomacy is a contact sport; you need to meet people face-to-face and develop personal ties.”

Seam talked about a number of issues affecting the Cook Islands and the rest of the world.

Seam said he agreed with Prime Minister Brown’s speech at COP 27. At the conference, Brown called on larger nations to provide climate financing for smaller nations, and pushed for the larger nations to do more to reduce emissions.

“The EU has been leading by example on these two issues. The EU has the most ambitious carbon reduction scheme in the developed world. We have a legally binding obligation to achieve carbon neutrality,” he said.

“On the issue of climate finance, the EU has committed 23 billion Euros towards it. It is leading by example.”

The Cook Islands established diplomatic relations with the EU in 2001. Since then, the Cook Islands have co-operated with Germany, the EU, and its member states on various development initiatives in areas such as water, energy, health, fisheries, tourism, international finance, climate adaptation, waste management, and marine and coastal biodiversity.

Asked about the Cook Islands’ desire to become a member of the United Nations, Seam said the EU recognised it was a decision to be made by the Cook Islands as a sovereign nation.

“For us, it is nonetheless important to maintain a good relationship with the Cook Islands. The bedrock of our relationship is a shared respect of democracy and sound governance and the application of the rule of law,” Seam said.

“The most recent achievement is the conclusion of the sustainable fisheries partnership between the Cook Islands and the European Union. Fishing resources are important for the Cook Islands.”

Seam said the EU respected sovereign nations to have their own stances on seabed mining, but he said he would be interested to “learn the current state of play” in the Cook Islands.

Sharing his views on the Russian war with Ukraine, Seam said it was a “very sad story”.

“The European Union project is built around the idea of peace and prosperity and democracy and freedom of markets,” he said.

“It’s extremely concerning that a nation such as Russia has chosen to invade sovereign nation in Ukraine and therefore damage the principles of the United Nations charter.

“As far as the European Union was concerned, this was a threat, but also an opportunity for the EU to step up and defend the values of the UN Charter.”

Seam said the EU provided the Ukraine the means to defend itself.

“That proved successful, it was a major step, it was the first time the EU agreed unanimously to provide weapons for a sovereign nation. We assisted Ukraine not only militarily but also in terms of humanitarian aid and economic care,” he said.

“But there were also the seizures of assets belonging to Russian oligarchs, which included yachts, one of which was registered in the Cook Islands. It shows a country as far away as the Cook Islands has a role to play in imposing sanctions to put pressure on Russia and Belarus.”

Seam said the EU recognises that the war in Ukraine has affected food prices all over the world, and was in the process of developing a $10 million Euro fund to assist Pacific nations in food affordability.

“This is a regional response, so it will take time to implement. We want to make sure whichever scheme we put in place, the populations which are most in need would be able to access it,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it will be a matter of needs.”

Seam was also interested in visiting the Cook Islands when the country holds the Pacific Islands Forum next year.

Seam, who is based in Suva, Fiji, said he had a busy schedule for his Cook Islands visit, but hoped to “have a swim in the lagoon” at some stage.

“Diplomacy has always been my passion; I’ve been a diplomat for 24 years. Of course, as a young diplomat your ambition is to become an ambassador, and I feel I have overachieved in that field,” he said.

“I was once French ambassador to five countries, but as EU ambassador to the Pacific, I deal with 13 nations. So that’s 18 nations in my five years in the Pacific.”