Cook Islands: “Uphold the decision making process of our Forum leaders”


By Nic Maclellan

The Cook Islands representative to the Pacific Islands Forum, Tepaeru Herrmann says they respect Kiribati’s decision to withdraw from the Forum, but that upholding the decision to appoint former Henry Puna to the Secretary-General’s position is of great importance.

Prime Minister Mark Brown is preparing for national elections on 01 August, so Cook Islands’ representative at the Pacific Islands Forum this week is Special Envoy Herrmann.

Despite the decision by Kiribati President Taneti Maamau to withdraw his country from the Forum, Herrmann says “we will continue to engage with Kiribati, continue to respect the decision that Kiribati has taken. We have confidence going into the leaders retreat and confidence in the talanoa approach to build consensus through respectful dialogue.”

The bottom line, however, is clear: “For the Cook Islands, the leaders met, they took a decision, the decision was to appoint Secretary General Puna. Upholding that decision is something of great importance to us.”

Hermann says the meeting is important as “we want to ensure the integrity of our Forum that we have all collectively built up over fifty years, and the primacy and legitimacy of the decision-making process of our leaders is upheld. Then we must ensure our ongoing unity and solidarity as a collective.”

Speaking to Islands Business, she stresses the importance of the Forum to the Cook Islands: “We’re a founding member of the Forum – in fact, it was the proposal from our founding father, the late Albert Henry, that led to the first meeting in Wellington, that now sees use celebrating 50 years of the Pacific Islands Forum.”

Over the last two years, the small Polynesian country has been central to regional debates over Forum unity, after the virtual election of former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna as Forum Secretary General in February 2021. The decision riled the five members of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit (MPS) – Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia – who were angered by the snub of their joint candidate for the post, RMI Ambassador Gerald Zackios.

Since then, the mood has worsened, despite formal ceremonies of apology and reconciliation, and extensive closed-door discussions with MPS leaders. Coming together this week is crucial, Herrmann says, because the travel restrictions that have divided the region during the pandemic have contributed to this breakdown of relations: “Unless you can talanoa, and sit and touch and hug and talk amongst each other, it is too easy for misunderstandings to arise.”

In May, Forum host Voreqe Bainimarama organised a dialogue in Suva to broker a solution before this week’s summit. The leaders of Fiji, Cook Islands, Samoa, FSM, Palau and a representative of RMI (but not Kiribati) thrashed out the “Suva Agreement” as a way to resolve the crisis, for consideration in this week’s summit. However the sudden decision by Kiribati to withdraw from the Forum highlights the ongoing concern of Micronesian leaders and communities.

For Tepaeru Herrmann, “the participation of Prime Minister Mark Brown in the political dialogue mechanism a couple of weeks ago was to demonstrate the importance we place on upholding the integrity of the decisions of our leaders. For the Cook Islands, the legitimacy of the decision taken by leaders to appoint Secretary General Henry Puna is one that had to be preserved.”

“That being said, it is quite obvious that our Micronesian family have felt that their interest and their voice has not been given due respect and due profile,” she said. “That has been heard loud and clear by the Cook Islands, loud and clear by all members of the Pacific Islands Forum. We heard Micronesia’s views and we have reciprocated, with what we need to reciprocate.”

Smaller Island States

For three decades, the smallest island members of the Forum have caucused as the Smaller Island States (SIS) grouping – their inaugural Summit was held in Rarotonga in January 1992. For Tepaeru Herrmann, the SIS still has a vital role to play within the wider Forum.

“We want to see stronger profile and greater resourcing directed to the Smaller Island States grouping, which includes eight of our member states,” she said. “It was necessary to create a grouping to focus specifically on their needs. Within SIS, you got all five Micronesian countries and three Polynesian states – Cook Islands, Niue and Tuvalu. Our grouping affords an opportunity for SIS leaders to discusses issues that perhaps are important to them, but not so important to the bigger members of the Forum.”

SIS nations have long been concerned that larger Forum nations and key development partners need to pay more attention to their concerns. After the 2014 Forum leaders’ meeting, the late Premier of Niue, Sir Toke Talagi, threatened to withdraw his country from the SIS caucus, criticising the Forum for not addressing core interests of the smaller members. Talagi complained: “We’re promised assistance, but at the end of the day, since I’ve been part of the Forum there’s been no substantial difference in the manner in which we are treated versus those in the larger countries.”

In response, the Forum adopted an SIS Regional Strategy in 2016, with new staffing, SIS officers and programs. But has it been enough?

“Of course not!” says Herrmann. “Where was the dedicated budget of a significant quantum? You can have an attachment here, a little project there, but the support has only trickled to the countries because of things like the Taiwan Fund. It’s not enough! In my humble opinion, what they have not received over the last decade is resourcing, to implement support towards their priorities, such as connectivity, transport and air communication. For such small, small economies, it’s extremely difficult to get economic activity going.”

“For the 2050 Strategy, that is one of the objectives of the Cook Islands,” said Herrmann. “We don’t just want to see statements of support and recognition of our vulnerability as SIS states, we want to see resources allocated and the 2050 Strategy being reviewed, with a refreshed SIS strategy.”

Despite current differences, seven of the eight SIS members – without Kiribati – joined this year’s SIS meeting on Tuesday in Suva. Herrmann believes that their common interests are still important, despite current debate over Micronesia’s role in the Forum.

“I was greatly encouraged with the congeniality, with the commonality of the challenges and where we wanted to focus,” she said. “The reality is that we are 18 sovereign countries coming in to a space. Inevitably, there will be issues on which we cannot converge. For the most part within the SIS, there is a renewed determination to ensure that our issues are fulfilled in the 2050 Strategy.”

The deep sea mining debate

Even with this commitment to regional unity and co-operation, there are still issues that cause debate and division amongst Forum member countries – the future of deep sea mining (DSM) is one of the sharpest.

Nauru, Tonga and Cook Islands are forging ahead with plans to licence exploration of the ocean floor for potentially valuable mineral resources within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of island nations as well as international waters.

In contrast, Fiji has called for a moratorium on DSM and a new alliance – the Pacific Parliamentarians’ Alliance on Deep Sea Mining (PPADSM) – has called for a regional dialogue on the potential impacts of deep sea mining, before further work can commence. The public launch of PPADSM on 13 April established “a collective of Pacific leaders who share the strong concern to protect the ocean in light of the rush by large corporations, backed by powerful governments, to mine the ocean floor for minerals before regulatory governance structures and measures are put in place.”

Herrmann rejected calls for a DSM moratorium, coming from Pacific civil society and many island governments.

“The growing calls for a moratorium on DSM activities are a cause for concern as they are ambiguous, arbitrary and impinge on the sovereign rights of Pacific nations,” she said. “The various moratorium proposals seek to impose arbitrary time frames on the sector’s development, instead of focussing on the science. It’s unclear what areas will be covered and what activities they will affect.”

The Cook Islands has already issued three exploratory licences to investigate deep sea resources in its waters, and the first exploration vessel arrived earlier this month for programs in the Cooks’ EEZ.

She rejects the notion that her country is rushing into the void: “The process we have gone through to issue exploratory licences has been an extremely robust one over a number of years. But Cook Islands has been very clear – exploitation will not happen until we have satisfied ourselves that all aspects have been dealt with, including environmental considerations.”

“The Cook Islands have been undertaking research, developing a legislative framework, bolstering all aspects to ensure that our stewardship responsibilities to future generations are upheld. We’ve received support over the years from the SPC, the International Seabed Authority and other entities for a decade or more, and this is not something we take lightly.”

For Herrmann, the need to work collectively across the region does not trump the sovereign interests of each Forum member state to address its own development needs: “From our perspective, as a country with substantial seabed mineral resources, we should instead be supporting the right of Pacific nations to make decisions regarding the sustainable development of their resources. A moratorium will undercut investment in much need marine research that will help us to better understand our deep sea environment. We need more data to make informed decisions, but a moratorium would likely deny us that opportunity.”

Regional geopolitics

After two year’s without full face-to-face leaders summits, host nation Fiji decided to prioritise the regional discussion over the Suva Agreement and the 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent, by postponing this year’s Forum Partners Dialogue, with 21 development partners.

Despite this, the United States leapt into the agenda on Wednesday, through a virtual speech to the summit by US Vice President Kamala Harris. Reflecting US concerns about China’s political influence in the region and the recent tour by PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Vice President Harris made a series of announcements: new US embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, more Peace Corps volunteers, and a new US Special Envoy to the Forum.

Under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, Harris announced “that we plan to triple US funding for economic development and ocean resilience for the Pacific Islands. We will request from the United States Congress an increase from $21 million per year to $60 million per year for the next 10 years.”

Monica Medina, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, has been in Fiji this week to meet with Forum leaders. She has been a key negotiator of the plan for extra funding through the Forum Fisheries Agency under the three-decade-old multilateral Tuna Treaty.

As the Biden administration approaches the looming US mid-term Congressional elections in November, this is a crucial issue for the region, at a time of heightened U.S-China strategic competition. Assistant Secretary Medina told Islands Business: “We’ve been consulting with Congress all along, with both Republicans and Democrats. For years, in both Democratic and Republican Congresses, we’ve sought this appropriation. So I don’t believe there’s any risk, but we’ll work hard through the process no matter who is in charge.”

For SIS states like Cook Islands, however, there’s a desire to see such pledges translated into results. The United States recognises the Cook Islands as a self-governing territory, and has signed treaties with the Cook Islands government, such as a 1980 maritime boundary treaty. But Tepaeru Herrmann says “for the Cook Islands, the United States has been absent for many years.”

“We have heard pledges, over the years, of elevated interest in the Pacific,” she said. “While we have always wanted to engage, we need to see pledges translate to action on the ground, through general, respectful engagement. It is what you actually do, that is the confirmation of partnership.”

“We welcome this pledge from the United States, but the reality is that this has to go through Congress. So we look forward to the political commitment being followed by the administrative – and particularly financial – delivery.”

For the people of the Cook Islands and other Smaller Island States, it seems actions speak louder than words.