The current Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) wants another term in the job.
“I thought being Prime Minister of the Cook Islands for 10 years was the ultimate. But this is more demanding, and in many ways, more pleasurable and more rewarding,” Henry Puna said.
“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,” Puna said.
While Puna is optimistic that he will lead the regional body for another term, the decision rests on the regional leaders.
“I’m employed by them, and I’m answerable to them. So, whatever the leaders decide, that’s what will happen,” he said.
Puna’s appointment in 2021 sparked a threat by the five Micronesian members to pull out of the forum after their candidate, who they believed had been promised the job, was overlooked.
“All five countries in Micronesia. Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Nauru and Kiribati, submitted their letters of denunciation soon after the forum vote,” Marshall Islands Journal editor Giff Johnson told RNZ Pacific.
But around that time, Marshall Islands President David Kabua wrote a letter to the former President of Nauru saying he did not want the Pacific Islands Forum to break up, Johnson said.
Furthermore, he wanted Henry Puna to stay on in the job according to the Marshall Islands Journal.
In the end, only Kiribati went through with the threat to leave.
The other four Micronesian countries who supported the Marshall Islands’ nomination for the role decided not to pull out.
“That was based on a lot of last-minute diplomacy and doing what people out here do really well, which is to talk and try to find ways to keep that group together,” Johnson said.
Johnson believes the Marshall Islands President’s letter played a significant part in making peace over the issue.
Work is underway to bring Kiribati back into the PIF fold.
“We continue to treat them as still being part of the family, that is very important,” Puna said.
The new Prime Minister of Fiji Sitiveni Rabuka, who is now the PIF Chair, was keen to make strides in that area from the get-go, the Cook Islander said.
It follows the creation of the Suva Agreement, a broken handshake agreement over who would be the next PIF Secretary General. It was made in Fiji at the last Forum meeting. Since Kiribati was not at the meeting after its membership withdrawal, it did not vote.
“In the meantime, our leaders, including the new Fijian Prime Minister, are keen to engage with the leadership in Tarawa to start the process of bringing them back into the Forum family fold.
“The latest on the Suva agreement is, the new Prime Minister of Fiji is keen to get his teeth into that,” Puna said.
Rabuka has said he is confident he’s repaired relations with Kiribati after his recent state visit there.
“There is talk of convening a special leaders’ summit between February and March, sooner rather than later and that is to deal with the civil agreement and the financing options, for implementing that agreement,” Puna said.
While Puna waits for PIF leaders to decide on his future, there are other matters that he needs to prioritise, and US engagement is high on the list.
He said he wants to make sure the US follows through with promises made at last year’s summit held in Washington.
“I want to focus on the new partnership that we have with the US, because there’s a lot of tangible benefits I can see for the region,” Puna said.
He said it has been hailed a roaring success, being the first-ever summit between Pacific leaders and President Joe Biden.
“That summit was really awesome. A lot of political undertakings and promises were made. I am looking forward to the challenge with my staff here at the Secretariat of converting those promises into tangible outcomes, for the benefit of the Pacific.
“The US is deadly serious about doing the right thing by the Pacific, following that summit.”
There have been follow up conversations with senior officials at the White House and in the State Department.
“We’re working together to advance all those undertakings that were made in Washington,” he said.
All of the work in the pipeline now is for the sake of the next generation, Puna said.
“I’m putting a lot of faith and a lot of investment in our young people to continue helping represent the Pacific at these international fora.”
The PIF leaders are looking at a forum date in October after the UN General Assembly in New York.
SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS