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
“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
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.
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
“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
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.”
ends in May 2024.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”.