Digital Snapshot

By Eva U Wagner

Pacific Islands Forum – Candidates for Secretary General

Digital Snapshot #25/20

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) was founded in 1971 and describes itself as the region’s premier political and economic policy organisation. The Forum has 18 members including Australia and New Zealand. There are 14 independent island states (the Cook Islands – in a free association with New Zealand, Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu), two non-self-governing territories administered by France (New Caledonia and French Polynesia) and one associate member (Tokelau). PIF was due to hold its annual leaders’ meeting in August this year in Vanuatu, and to elect a new secretary general. This meeting was cancelled due to both the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and subsequent border closures and travel bans throughout the region and tropical cyclone Harold, which hit the host country hard. According to media reports, the PIF leaders are considering to hold a teleconference in October instead. Their Chair (Kausea Natano, who is also the Prime Minister of Tuvalu) has reportedly urged them to postpone the appointment of a new secretary general to the next face to face meeting scheduled to be held in Fiji next year. Currently, Dame Meg Taylor from Papua New Guinea leads the organisation. In 2014 (and again in 2017), she was the first women to be appointed to the top. Her second three-year term expires on 15 January 2021 and the contest for her replacement is in full swing. KAS Australia takes this as an opportunity to take a closer look at the candidates.

The Diplomat reports that five Micronesian nations (Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands) have unanimously nominated as their joint candidate Gerald Zackios from the Marshall Islands. In their view, it is Micronesia’s turn to nominate the next secretary general. Palau’s President Thomas Remengesau made it clear that “[a] Micronesian secretary general would show that the Micronesian sub-region matters to PIF”, and that it would send the opposite message if their candidate were to miss out on it. His statement did not prevent the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Fiji from nominating their own candidates.

Who is Gerald Zackios and his four competitors? According to The Diplomat,

Gerald Zackios currently serves as the Marshall Islands’ permanent representative to the United Nations. He has previously held a number of ministerial positions, including minister of foreign affairs, attorney general and chief negotiator for the Compact of Free Association between the Marshall Islands and the United States.

Dr Jimmie Rodgers from the Solomon Islands is a medical doctor and former secretary of health. He also served as director general of the Pacific Community (SPC) and was defeated by Dame Meg Taylor in the contest for the PIF top job in 2014. Currently, he is one of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s key advisers.

Henry Puna is the Cook Islands’ outgoing Prime Minister. The Cook Islands Party representative was elected to parliament in 2005 and returned as prime minister in November 2010. In June this year, he announced his resignation in an endeavour to become PIF’s new secretary general.

Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua from Tonga is a development economist and head of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s gender section. She previously held positions with SPC, the Asian Development Bank, UNDP and the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

About Ratu Inoke Kubuabola from Fiji we are told that he held for more than 30 years ministerial roles in several elected and unelected governments. From 2002 to 2005, he reportedly served as high commissioner to Papua New Guinea and, in 2006, as ambassador to Japan and Korea. Since 2014, he is said to have represented his country in his capacity as minister for foreign affairs and national security at PIF meetings.

The Micronesian argument for a Micronesian secretary general is a strong one. Their candidate’s failure, should he not be appointed, would be in breach of the unwritten convention that the leadership should rotate between Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. While it would not be the first time for such conventions to be put aside, it would most likely trigger discord amongst the PIF member countries. The election of the only women candidate, Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua from Tonga, would in turn mean a continuation of female leadership at the top of the regional organisation. By actively promoting her candidature, she reportedly breached the convention of silent selection of candidates behind closed doors, and said that she would be a “strategic, supportive, solution-oriented and servant leader”. While it is unclear to outsiders what  are the chances of the Solomon Islands’ candidate and the Cook Islands’ candidate to succeed in the race for the leadership, the election of the Fijian candidate appears rather unlikely, given that he is described as a controversial figure, not least due to his serving in unelected governments. In the meantime, Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau confirmed his country was aiming to host on 1 October (Independence Day) an in-person leaders’ meeting for representatives from Kiribati, Nauru, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.