There are already calls to reconsider former Nauru president Baron Waqa’s appointment as Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general.
Waqa — who has a controversial record on human rights and press freedom — has been selected to lead the Pacific Islands Forum as secretary-general starting next year.
The choice was part of a deal to bring Micronesian countries back into the fold after they threatened to leave the intergovernmental body in 2021.
But there are already calls to reconsider Waqa’s appointment to the position, which was announced at a special meeting of Pacific leaders last week.
Amnesty International’s Pacific researcher, Kate Scheutze, said that Waqa had been president when serious human rights violations allegedly occurred in Australian immigration detention centres on Nauru.
“In some cases that amounted to sexual abuse and torture of refugees and asylum seekers,” she said.
“The Australian government and companies and corporations working in that offshore processing system also had a role to play, but that by no means absolves the Nauru government of responsibility.”
The allegations made by Amnesty International haven’t been tested in court and Nauru’s government has denied claims of abuse.
Reopened in 2012 under the Gillard government, Australia’s offshore processing centre on Nauru remains the single biggest source of income for the Pacific nation.
In 2018, Waqa was heavily criticised for ordering medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to stop providing mental health treatment to refugees on the island.
His government accused the organisation of “conspiring against Nauru” after MSF called for all asylum seekers to be immediately evacuated over concerns for their wellbeing.
Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said the decision to appoint Waqa’s as secretary-general of the PIF was astonishing.
“Particularly given his history as president of Nauru – it’s a notorious history,” Rintoul said.
“he Pacific Island Forum is totally discredited by having Baron Waqa at the top of it.”
While in office from 2013 until 2019, Mr Waqa was also accused of suppressing freedom of speech by banning Facebook, restricting the media and prosecuting citizens who spoke against his government.
“He presided over a period of Nauru’s history, which is a very dark chapter,” Scheutze said.
In a famous case known as the 19 Nauru, a group of opposition MPs and their supporters were slapped with criminal charges after staging a protest outside Nauru’s parliament house in 2015.
The charges were thrown out by independent Australian judge, Geoffrey Muecke, who said a fair trial was not possible due to a lack of judicial independence.
He found the Nauruan government had blacklisted the group, preventing them from gaining employment or income from property, and had deliberately attempted to influence the court.
Justice Muecke then had his contract terminated by the Nauruan government before a retrial.
In 2019, the group was found guilty of rioting and unlawful assembly.
Members claim they were denied legal assistance, access to international lawyers and some had their passports seized so they could not leave the country.
The case sparked international outcry and prompted New Zealand to withdraw judicial aid to Nauru.
Squire Jeremiah, a former opposition MP and one of the Nauru 19, fled to Australia where he is currently seeking humanitarian protection.
He said Waqa’s appointment would undermine the integrity of the Pacific Islands Forum.
The regional body lists human rights, transparency and accountability as its core values.
“I just can’t imagine how they [have] come up with this,” Jeremiah said.
“It’s really unacceptable to me and they should reconsider and change the nomination.”
Schuetze, from Amnesty International, said while diverse representation within the Forum was important, leaders should be chosen based on their commitment to its values.
“People of credibility, who bring with them some sort of knowledge and expertise in terms of human rights and really promoting the rights and interests of Pacific Island peoples,” she said.
The ABC has sought comment from Waqa through a range of channels and has approached the Pacific Islands Forum and Micronesian leaders for comment.
Since his defeat in Nauru’s 2019 election, Waqa has been largely out of the political spotlight.
In 2022 he led the Commonwealth Observers Mission for elections in Papua New Guinea.
His rise to power within the PIF was clinched under a deal, known as the Suva Agreement, to bring Micronesian countries back to the group after they threatened to leave in 2021.
The deal also included establishing a PIF sub-regional office in Micronesia and a new Pacific Ocean Commissioner position.
Tess Newton Cain, project lead for the Griffith University Pacific Hub, said the Micronesian countries agreed that a Nauruan candidate would be put forward to be the next secretary general.
“I think the particular person that they’ve selected is something of a surprise,” she said.
“There were other names being mentioned … who possibly have more of a profile in terms of international and regional and global diplomacy than Baron Waqa does.”
She said the former Nauruan president would have his work cut out for him, with intensifying geopolitical interest in the region.
“It’s a particularly big job at the moment, given the increased level of interest in the region and more partners wanting to have a bigger presence,” she said.
Waqa famously clashed with a Chinese diplomat during a 2018 meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum and accused Beijing of bullying smaller countries.
Nauru also maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
But Dr Newton Cain said Waqa’s personal attitude towards China may be of little consequence.
“To a large extent, it shouldn’t matter, she said.
“His position is to lead the Forum Secretariat as secretary general, in order to operationalise the wishes and the decisions of the Pacific leadership,” Dr Cain said.