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SPECIAL ADDRESS BY HENRY PUNA, SECRETARY GENERAL OF THE PACIFIC ISLANDS FORUM “Reflections on Pacific Regionalism and learnings from the recent past”, Apia, Samoa 8 June 2023

SAMOA, June 9 - • The Honourable Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Prime Minister of Samoa
• Honourable Cabinet Ministers
• Senior Officials and Representatives of the Samoan Government
• Members of the Diplomatic Corp
• Distinguished Guests
• Ladies and Gentlemen

• Kia Orana and Talofa Lava.

• I am grateful and indeed honoured, to be here once again in Samoa – an island nation that has always demonstrated leadership in our region – whether it be in politics, self-determination, rugby or rugby league.

• At the outset, allow me to sincerely acknowledge our gracious host for the evening, the Prime Minister, the Honourable Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.

• Thank you, Prime Minister, for accepting my humble request:
o to visit your great island nation,
o to spend some time with you and your senior officials; and
o most of all, for allowing me this time and space to offer a few thoughts and reflections on Pacific regionalism at this juncture in my tenure.

[Samoa’s Role in Regionalism]
• Indeed, Samoa has always been a regional trend-setter in the Pacific.

• Samoa’s regional legacy began with your own independence journey in 1962 – a journey in courage which gave birth to an era of self-determination across our vast region.

• It was an independence journey that was not only driven by self-determination, but more so, by the very protection of Samoan culture and tradition – the Fa’a Samoa.

• Samoa’s journey galvanised Leaders across the region to aspire to and actively pursue self-governance and self-determination.

• The historic Banana Trade and the idea of regional self-determination were key initiatives, that led to the recognition of the significance of cooperation and dialogue, among Pacific Island Nations.

• This history demonstrated the importance of having a shared platform, where leaders from Pacific Islands can come together, to discuss their shared challenges, to learn from each other’s experiences, and to work together to find solutions for the region’s sustainable development and well-being, as well as the strategic direction of the Pacific.

• In turn, this shaped the emergence of the ideology of “shared regional determination,” a key concept which continues to influence today’s Forum regionalism, and the notion of collective strength.

[The Pacific Way]
• It inspired what we know today as the Pacific Way – a founding principle of the Pacific Islands Forum.

• Just as the Fa’a Samoa was central to Samoa’s independence journey, the Pacific Way recognised Pacific cultural values, as central to our regional self-determination.

• I share these reflections this evening, to emphasise the point that our history and our founding principles, will always remain central to our identity – whether it be our identity as a people, as a nation, or as one Pacific region.
[Our current strategic context]
• It is now over two score years and ten, since the phrase Pacific Way was first used, and the Pacific Islands Forum was established.

• We live today in unprecedented times.

• We have borne witness to a global pandemic. We continue to battle the existential threat of the climate crisis and sea level rise; potential nuclear challenge with a leaking Runit Dome in RMI, and the proposed nuclear waste discharge by Japan; and we have just come through one of the most significant political challenges within the Pacific Islands Forum.

• At the same time, we continue to navigate and manage unprecedented levels of partner interest in our region. Strategic and geo-political interests, that seek to influence and shape our futures for us.

• The onus is on us, as a region, to work together to ensure that we can translate this increased strategic interest into tangible partnerships, that align to and support our priorities.

• To effectively accomplish this, our solidarity as a region remains absolutely critical, in advancing our shared interests and priorities.

• This is the very essence of our 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which I am proud to say our Forum Leaders adopted last July.

• It is a strategy that is rooted in the Blue Pacific identity and narrative, that was conceptualised here in Samoa in 2017, and which Forum Leaders have embraced and driven since.

[Assuming the helm of the Pacific Islands Forum]

• Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

• This is the strategic context within which I assumed my present role, as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum.

• My appointment was in many respects, a double-edged sword.

• It was, first and foremost, a great honour for my government, the people of the Cook Islands and indeed, for my family and I.

• However, it was also an appointment process, that tested the very values and principles of the Pacific Islands Forum.

• Two years on from that fateful evening on 4th of February 2021, and with the benefit of hindsight, two key lessons I have learnt are:

o First, the value and importance of our Pacific Way, and the need to proactively invest in building collegiality across the Forum Leadership; and
o Second, the importance of face-to-face meetings, and of upholding the principles and processes of the Pacific Islands Forum, including consensus-based decision-making.
[The cost of regional solidarity]
• The resulting political impasse within the Forum, and the subsequent resolution through the Suva Agreement, has established new political norms for the region.

• It has also given greater prominence to sub-regionalism, as an increasingly influential element within the Forum structure – shaping its leadership; and potentially, its direction.

• These recent events also throw into question, whether the Pacific Way remains the central driver of the identity, and the way we work, within the Pacific Islands Forum – or whether we have evolved to a new way of working together, as Member countries.

• Honourable Prime Minister, these are indeed questions that you and your contemporary Leaders must settle, if our Forum is to be clear in its identity and direction, over the course of coming decades.

[Centrality of political leadership to regional solidarity]
• Ladies and Gentlemen,

• Put plainly, the effectiveness of regionalism is dependent on political will and commitment.

• If there is anything I have learnt over the course of my career to date, it is that the political will of the collective, is only as strong as its weakest point.

• The onus is on us, as your Secretariat, to invest the time and resources in:

o Engaging with and building relationships at the political level; and
o Ensuring clear and comprehensive regional briefings for our new political leaders. This is imperative to shaping their respective views of regional engagements.

• As history has clearly shown us, ownership and strong inspired political leadership is necessary, to drive Pacific regionalism, and to ensure the continued effectiveness of the Pacific Islands Forum.

• And at its very core, the pinnacle of the Pacific Islands Forum is the sanctity of the Forum Leaders’ decisions, and the integrity of the Leaders.

[Looking forward and the immediate next steps]

• Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

• Throughout my professional life, I have traversed many challenges and faced many obstacles. I spent 10 years as Prime Minister of the Cook Islands. And I know the overwhelming pressures that comes from such a high-profile job. I am proud that I exited on my own terms and would like to think that I left the country in a better shape than when I started.

• Through those reflections, I have to say, that the role of PIF Secretary General has been the most challenging of my career; you have the enormity of the challenges of the whole region on your shoulders, on top of the solidarity challenges of the Forum membership. And while the circumstances of my tenure as Secretary General is not what I had envisioned in taking up the role – my integrity remains, and my belief in the Forum, and in regionalism, is as strong as ever.

• In this respect, and for me personally, with the 2050 Strategy in place, my immediate priority for the remainder of my term is three-fold:

• Firstly, ensuring the successful completion of the 2050 Implementation Plan;
• Secondly, ensuring that our external partners recognize the centrality to the 2050 Strategy of Pacific regionalism, and aligning their development cooperation to our priorities, and against the 2050 Implementation Plan; and
• Most importantly, strengthening political leadership, and political ownership, in the values and principles of the Forum – OUR PACIFIC WAY – in the hope that what has transpired during my tenure, will never happen again.

• Fa’afetai tele lava, meitaki ma’ata and thank you all very much. –ENDS

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