By Barbara Dreaver, 1News Pacific Correspondent
The appointment of Baron Waqa, former President of Nauru, to head the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) next year was a jaw-droppingly poor decision and an insult to everything the regional body is meant to represent. What were the Forum leaders thinking?
Here’s the thing, they were probably told he’s the former President of Nauru, he’ll do, and we have to keep Micronesia happy. Tick.
There’s no doubt Micronesia has held the power at this Forum after Kiribati dramatically ditched the group last year. It’s crucial all Pacific countries, which include NZ and Australia, be united as the world goes through some crazy times.
Micronesia was offered a number of incentives to keep them at the table, including a new sub-regional office in Kiribati, a Pacific Oceans Commissioner based in Palau and Nauru’s Baron Waqa as Secretary General.
So what sort of man has been chosen to lead the forum next year?
1. There’s been an ongoing Australian Federal Police investigation into Gold Coast phosphate company Getax for the alleged payment of bribes to Nauruan politicians. That includes Baron Waqa, who allegedly received $60,000(US$40,000).
2. In 2014, President Baron Waqa and his Government sacked the independent judiciary. He defended doing so, saying, “we have a right to dismiss any person not fulfilling their duties in the best interests of Nauru”. This prompted an international outcry, and the New Zealand Government withdrew aid for the judicial system there in protest.
3. In 2015, his Government blocked access to Facebook, which many, including a former Chief Justice, believed was an attempt to stifle dissent.
4. Media freedom is an issue – it costs $8,750 (US$5,883) to apply for media to apply for a visa, and if it’s not approved (most of the time), you lose that amount.
A disclosure: I was taken into custody in 2018 during the Pacific Islands forum while interviewing a refugee in a public area. The Government, led by Nauru President Baron Waqa, later said I wasn’t detained but accompanied them “voluntarily”. An outright lie – two police cars showed up, my equipment and phone were confiscated, and I was ordered into one of the cars. I was then placed in a dark room with a male police officer – a failed attempt at intimidation – for at least an hour before NZ MFAT officials arrived.
5. In 2015, an Australian PR firm Mercer PR, which was working for the Nauru Government, released details of a police report on an assault of a female Somali refugee.
The local police had found insufficient evidence, and in an extraordinary move, the Government released the name of the complainant and graphic details about the allegations, including comments about her vagina and whether there was any evidence of semen and sexual activity.
The founder of the PR company Lyall Mercer defended the document release saying it had done so on behalf of the Nauru Government. A Government led by Baron Waqa..and there was never any back down or apology over this.
How galling to see the sycophantic tweet from Lyall Mercer this week congratulating Waqa for his new PIF role, saying, “he is a person of great integrity & character, has travelled the world extensively & has a love & passion for the region & the Pacific way”.
So how do the women of the region feel about being represented by a man who had no problems with this extraordinary breach of privacy, the absolute contempt for the woman involved, which was clearly intended as a warning for any other female refugee coming forward? Last year as part of the PIF communique, the leaders commended the first PIF women leaders’ meeting a “milestone for the region and is demonstrative of its collective commitment to ensure that regional priorities are considerate of gender-balanced views and perspectives”. What a joke.
Politics in the Pacific is male-dominated, that’s a fact, and the Pacific Islands Forum could do a lot more to change that – this appointment is several steps back.
There were some highlights of the PIF special meeting. It was a relief to see Kiribati return to the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has done more to bring the Pacific countries together than any other individual – as Forum chair, he showed immense integrity during the forum – and finally, from New Zealand’s perspective, I’m told Carmel Sepuloni did an exceptional job at the leader’s table.
But the selection of Baron Waqa shows how desperate Pacific Forum leaders, without doing due diligence, were to keep Micronesia happy. This a shoddy outcome for what needs to be a strong regional group with good governance, reflective of the people who live in the region, not the people at the top.