Will ex Nauru’s President Baron Waqa’s appointment as next Pacific Islands Forum boss do more harm than good?



The question being asked around the Pacific is to how the region’s leaders could agree to Nauru’s Baron Waqa becoming the new secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum.

This is a high-level diplomatic post and the former Nauru president has proven to be a controversial figure.

The secretary general’s role is typically filled by someone from a strong diplomatic background, such as Papua New Guinea’s Dame Meg Taylor or Australia’s Greg Urwin, or former Samoa judge Neroni Slade, or someone with an unblemished political record, such as the incumbent, former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna.

The Waqa appointment was made as part of a raft of measures to repair a rift that had threatened to sink the regional body.

But it may cause the organisation more difficulties.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong has told AAP that Australia would abide by the proposed Forum appointment as it was part of an “agreement that allowed the family to reunite”.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta told the news agency Waqa had the “requisite skills” to represent the Pacific.

However, Waqa’s record while running Nauru was certainly controversial.

He denied receiving bribes and turned the judiciary on its head.

New Zealand withdrew aid support to the Nauru judicial sector after the removal of the judges.

He also won no friends among refugee advocates for his treatment of the hundreds of asylum seekers Australia placed on his island.

The group of protesters that came to be known as the Nauru 19 had no love for Waqa.

The group, which included most of the opposition in parliament and former cabinet ministers, faced more than three years of trials over a minor protest at parliament, with some eventually jailed and others forced out of the country.

The criticism of Waqa has been widespread and Dr Anna Powles of the Centre for Security and Defence Studies at Massey University said the appointment could be revisited.

She said one of the Micronesian leaders has stated that some were unaware of Waqa’s background.

“Only recently the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, suggested that not all of the Micronesian leaders were across some of those issues that make Baron Waqa such a controversial character. He seemed to suggest in his interview that the door was being left open, left ajar, to reconsider the nomination.”

David Panuelo has since been voted out in the FSM’s national elections and will be replaced as president.

On Nauru itself, the appointment has not been popular.

One commentator said: “People saw him for what he was and decisively booted him out in 2019. From President to a nobody. Now this government want to reward him with the SG appointment. What the hell for? A very unpopular decision and not in line with public sentiment.”

Meanwhile, both Waqa and the new Forum chairman, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown are keen advocates for deep sea mining.

Powles said this is an issue that threatens to splinter the regional body.

“So it is something which is going to be of an enormous amount of concern because previously the Pacific Islands Forum and certainly key members of it have been key proponents advocating strongly against deepsea mining and the environmental impacts of deepsea mining. So this is going to be, potentially a very divisive issue.”

Waqa is due to assume the role in 2024.

RNZ Pacific has contacted the Nauru government and Waqa for comment