As Cook Islands politician Henry Puna prepares to assume the role of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, he faces a monumental challenge in restoring the spirit of Pacific cooperation at a time when many say the region needs it most.
Former Prime Minister Henry Puna is facing what is likely the most difficult challenge in his political career.
The Manihiki Member of Parliament was voted in as the next Secretary General for the Pacific Islands Forum last week, but his selection by Pacific leaders has been marked with controversy.
Leaders from Micronesia said their candidate – Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States Gerald Zackios – was overlooked, dishonouring a “gentleman’s agreement” to rotate the post evenly among the three sub-regions of the Pacific.
The Forum now looks to lose nearly a third of its members after Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia decided to initiate the formal process for withdrawing from the regional bloc.
This week, Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation a “simple solution” to resolve the impasse is for Puna to withdraw from assuming the role.
Since being voted in, Puna hasn’t commented publicly. When reached by Cook Islands News, he said an interview would need to be arranged through the Cook Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration.
Yesterday, a ministry official said he’s unlikely to accommodate any interviews this week.
With a fractured region, Pacific Islands Research Fellow Alexandre Dayant from the Lowy Institute says Puna faces a monumental challenge as incoming secretary general.
“It is going to be a tough mandate for Puna because he not only is facing the crises of climate change and Covid-19, but he also faces a relevance crisis of the Pacific Islands Forum,” Dayant told this newspaper.
“We are reaching a very low for regionalism at a time when unity is more important than ever. I think the next few years are going to be very challenging, and it will be important to highlight the roles of sub-regional groups.”
Regarding the voting process that saw Puna voted in by a count of 9 votes to 8 with one abstention among the 18 Forum member states, Dayant said the election was carried out fairly. “The election process for the SG was a democratic one, and the majority won, and even if it wasn’t the preferred result, the process has been applied,” he said.
As Secretary General, Dayant said Puna will have to oversee reforms to acknowledge the concerns of Micronesian states and address their grievances.
“In the state of things today, I don’t think we will see the Micronesian states coming back,” he said.
“However this crisis clearly highlights the need for institutional reforms and there might be some ways in which the Micronesian states might be willing to come back to the table, but not with the current state of things.”
With the Cook Islands now thrusted into the spotlight, Opposition Democratic Party leader Tina Browne said Puna will have to “dig deep into his conscience” to restore the spirit of regionalism.
“He is clearly faced with two options – to do what he can to mend the fracture and save regional unity and the future of the Pacific Forum or, just ‘forward march’ without the Micronesians and lead a Forum that is no longer fully representative of the Pacific region.”
“It is unfortunate that our country played a prominent role in all of this. This will all be recorded in history, as will the role we had in splintering the Pacific Forum.”