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What happened to me must never happen again – Puna

Tuesday 13 June 2023 | Written by Losirene Lacanivalu | Published in Features, Pacific Islands, Regional, Weekend


What happened to me must  never happen again – Puna
Former Cook Islands prime minister and the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Henry Puna. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone/23061215

Former Cook Islands prime minister and Manihiki MP Henry Puna has spoken out about his ‘controversial’ appointment and impending exit as the Pacific Islands Forum secretary general at a recent event in Apia, Samoa.

In a frank admission on the circumstances which forced his exit from the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the Secretary General (SG) of the Forum Puna has told a closed function hosted in Samoa that what took place must never happen again.

“My appointment was in many respects, a double-edged sword,” he told invited guests at the ‘Special Address’ event which was livestreamed on Thursday afternoon last week from the Taumeasina Resort in Apia.

“It was, first and foremost, a great honour for my government, the people of the Cook Islands and indeed, for my family and I. However, it was also an appointment process, that tested the very values and principles of the Pacific Islands Forum.”

Puna did not go into details of the fracture which resulted the rejection by Micronesia Presidents of his closely contested election as the SG following the completion by Dame Meg Taylor of her time at the helm.

In a voting process, he narrowly beat Micronesia’s candidate. It sparked a threat from the five Micronesian members to pull out of the Forum after their candidate, who they believed had been promised the job, was overlooked.

In the end, only Kiribati withdrew.

The 2022 Suva Agreement, and its endorsement by Forum Leaders in February 2023, has set out a deal which kept the Forum together, and allowed Kiribati to also sign on and return to the fold.

The deal ensures Puna will not serve another term, and provides national level incentives to the Micronesia countries to help restore their claims over lack of representation and benefits from regionalism.

Fiji prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, left, with Kiribati President Taneti Maamau Photo: Makereta Komai/ PINA/23061216

In his reflections on his short tenure, Puna was keen to avoid any hint of hurt at his treatment and the decisions endorsed by all Leaders.

“Two years on from that fateful evening on 4th of February 2021, and with the benefit of hindsight, two key lessons I have learnt are first, the value and importance of our Pacific Way, and the need to proactively invest in building collegiality across the Forum Leadership; and second, the importance of face-to-face meetings, and of upholding the principles and processes of the Pacific Islands Forum, including consensus-based decision-making.”

Earlier this year, Puna expressed his desire to be re-elected as secretary general, telling Radio New Zealand: “I’m enjoying this job so much. It’d be nice to continue in the role. It’s up to how I can perform over the next year.”

His term ends in May 2024.

However the Cook Islands government who nominated Puna for the Forum role then reaffirmed its intention to support a Micronesian candidate to take on the role after Puna’s term is up.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Secretary Tepaeru Herrmann then said: “the Cook Islands government position as relates to the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum position remains the same that it has been since the meeting of Pacific Islands Forum Leaders in July 2022. That is, that PIF members have agreed to a rotation of the Secretary General and Forum Chair positions between the three sub-regions.”

“Micronesia will hold the next Secretary General position beginning in 2024,” added Herrmann, who is also the Special Envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

At the event in Samoa, Puna hinted the resulting political impasse within the Forum, and the subsequent resolution through the Suva Agreement, “has established new political norms for the region and given greater prominence to sub-regionalism, as an increasingly influential element within the Forum structure – shaping its leadership; and potentially, its direction.”

Puna warned the “political will of the collective, is only as strong as its weakest point”.

“As history has clearly shown us, ownership and strong inspired political leadership is necessary, to drive Pacific regionalism, and to ensure the continued effectiveness of the Pacific Islands Forum.”

He said the core of the Pacific Islands Forum is the sanctity of the Forum Leaders’ decisions, and the integrity of the Leaders. Neither he nor the Samoa PM Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa mentioned the recent rejection by the Solomon Islands of the Korea-Pacific Leaders Summit outcomes due to disagreements over text.

Puna thanked the Samoa PM for hosting and initiating the special address.

“Samoa’s journey galvanised Leaders across the region to aspire to and actively pursue self-governance and self-determination.

“This history demonstrated the importance of having a shared platform, where leaders from Pacific Islands can come together, to discuss their shared challenges, to learn from each other’s experiences, and to work together to find solutions for the region’s sustainable development and well-being, as well as the strategic direction of the Pacific.

“In turn, this shaped the emergence of the ideology of ‘shared regional determination,’ a key concept which continues to influence today’s Forum regionalism, and the notion of collective strength. It inspired what we know today as the Pacific Way – a founding principle of the Pacific Islands Forum,” he said.

Puna said his special address and its timing, was to make the point that “our history and our founding principles, will always remain central to our identity – whether it be our identity as a people, as a nation, or as one Pacific region.”

He said the “onus is on us, as a region, to work together to ensure that we can translate this increased strategic interest into tangible partnerships, that align to and support our priorities. To effectively accomplish this, our solidarity as a region remains absolutely critical, in advancing our shared interests and priorities.”

“These recent events also throw into question, whether the Pacific Way remains the central driver of the identity, and the way we work, within the Pacific Islands Forum – or whether we have evolved to a new way of working together, as Member countries,” Puna said, levelling the key question on decisions of the Leaders back at the Samoa PM – “these are indeed questions that you and your contemporary Leaders must settle, if our Forum is to be clear in its identity and direction, over the course of coming decades.”

He said the effectiveness of regionalism depended on political will, and commitment.

Puna had taken up post during the pandemic, and not been able to connect face to face with Leaders in the first year of his service.

“We have borne witness to a global pandemic. We continue to battle the existential threat of the climate crisis and sea level rise; potential nuclear challenge with a leaking Runit Dome in RMI, and the proposed nuclear waste discharge by Japan; and we have just come through one of the most significant political challenges within the Pacific Islands Forum.

“At the same time, we continue to navigate and manage unprecedented levels of partner interest in our region. Strategic and geo-political interests, that seek to influence and shape our futures for us.”

Listing his key priorities for the remainder of his tenure, Puna pointed to completion of the 2050 Implementation Plan; promoting the 2050 Strategy of Pacific regionalism to partners and “most importantly, strengthening political leadership, and political ownership, in the values and principles of the Forum – our Pacific Way, in the hope that what has transpired during my tenure, will never happen again.”.

  • PACNEWS Pita Liagaiula / Losirene Lacanivalu