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It’s been a distrupted first 10 months of operations for the Cook Islands High Commission in Suva, with COVID-19 cutting across all aspects of mission set up including staffing and engagements.
In late 2019, former Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration (MFAI) Pacific and Regional Affairs Division Jim Armistead was apointed Charge d’affaires to lead the preparatory set up work for the high commission, the first diplomatic mission for the Cook Islands in Fiji.
Armistead relocated to Suva mid-January and has overseen the office set up including growing the mission’s network of partners inclusive Fiji Government representatives, members of the diplomatic corp, regional and multilateral agencies with presence in Suva and Fiji business, academia and society representatives.
MFAI Secretary Tepaeru Herrmann recalled the motivation for establishing the mission in Suva was to “grow the Cook Islands influence within the region, pursue further economic cooperation with Fiji and expand prospects in the main Pacific regional hub.” The importance of a presence in Fiji has been further underlined by the present health and economic crisis brought about by covid-19. With restricted travel through the region, the Cook Islands engagement with regional and international multilateral organisations based in Suva has been maintained through on the ground meetings with the High Commission. Notably, the Covid-19 regional response has been coordinated through the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19 (PHP-C).
Fiji is commonly viewed as a key pacific hub in the region and hosts multiple diplomatic missions, regional organisations and multilateral agencies. In addition to international organisations, growing economic opportunities will be pursued through opening up opportunities in trade, transport and labour mobility. It is envisioned that the High Commission will support Cook Islands government and private sector interests in Fiji. Secretary Hermann noted the growing influence of imports from Fiji that has risen from around $4 million (US$2.6 million) in 2015 to $28 million (US$18.6 million) in 2019.
The role of Charge d’affaires currently held by Armistead entailed securing premises for the Mission and seconded staff, providing consular services, setting up diplomatic networks, instituting office systems and growing the profile of the Cook Islands in Fiji. Charge d’affaires, Jim Armistead, commented “it is a privilege to be given the chance to lead the set-up of our second diplomatic mission but this work is a culmination of a concerted effort by the Ministry over a number of years, supported by our Government and a response to calls from our business sector for greater trade and business with Fiji.”
Armistead noted the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly challenging given the uncertainty of lockdowns, procuring material and recruiting local staff. Although covid-19 has impacted on plans, the High Commission has been proactive in building relations with Fiji and engaging in the regional work of the Pacific Islands Forum, Pacific Community, the University of the South Pacific and development partners based in Suva, including India and the European Union. Looking ahead, the High Commission is planning to engage with private sector entities in Fiji and with Cook Islands businesses wanting business assistance in Suva.
Armistead has over 10 years of experience in senior management roles in the government most recently heading MFAI’s Pacific and Regional Affairs Division since 2014. Prior to that he was Manager of the Development Coordination Division in MFEM for a number of years and a stint with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. With the recent easing of Covid-19 restrictions the High Commission has recently employed Fiji based Cook Islander Annie Kaufononga as the Executive Officer. A chartered accountant, Kaufononga has previously worked for MFEM and the Prime Minister’s office in Rarotonga and has for the last six years been employed by USP in finance and administration.
“Much like our high commission in Wellington, our Suva diplomatic post is being staffed by select small teams of experienced Cook Islanders who bring to their roles requisite expertise and professional networks and a commitment to serving our people and advancing the interests of our nation abroad,” said Secretary Herrmann.
“A Suva presence strengthens our government’s ability to engage in a sustained manner in key regional discussions that determine regional priorities and resource allocation. Further, as the regional business hub for the Pacific, a Suva presence enables some opening up of business opportunities for Cook Islands private sector in Fiji and beyond which the Ministry through the High Commission look forward to supporting in the coming months.”.
SOURCE: COOK ISLANDS FOREIGN MINISTRY/PACNEWS
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