Taking the helm of the fractured Pacific Islands Forum, Henry Puna said a "political dialog" is underway to try to resolve the conflict among member nations.
The former prime minister of Cook Islands has succeeded Dame Meg Taylor as secretary-general of the Forum after a protest-ridden ballot in February that prompted five nations to withdraw their membership.
The dialog process, Puna said, "is symbolic of our Pacific way of talanoa and amicable resolution of differences."
However, he offered no details about the "political dialog." "Let us await the outcome of that process," Puna said. "As the Forum Secretariat, we will continue to serve all members and I look forward to that ongoing engagement across our Forum family."
Puna said he is assuming his new role with an open mind, confidence in his team and a focus on the Forum family and values of regionalism.
“Our Blue Pacific continent is at its best and its strongest when our member nations work together as a family, and we must continue to do all we can to protect that strength," Puna said in a statement posted on the Forum's website.
Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Nauru filed their notice of exit from the group, following the Forum's snub of their candidate Gerald Zackios. The Micronesian nations' presidents assailed the Forum for reneging on a "gentlemen's agreement" to rotate the leadership among member countries.
Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr., earlier said the Micronesian nations would not reconsider their membership withdrawal unless the Forum offered an acceptable remedy.
While Forum leaders later apologized to the breakaway group, they offered no promise to reverse the election result and grant the Micronesian countries' demand.
“It is a matter of looking after each other and supporting each other when challenges arise,” Puna said. “If one succeeds, we all succeed, and if one fails, it’s a shared failure. I am committed to working with all our member nations to work toward strengthening the solidarity of our Forum family.”
As secretary-general of the Forum, Puna will also serve as the Pacific Ocean commissioner.
"The future of our ocean, and work in oceans governance, is of particular interest to me," Puna said. "Our Forum member nations share a common border, our Blue Pacific Ocean, and we are the custodians of its health, security, and sustainability. This responsibility I take very seriously.”
The Forum secretary-general also serves as permanent chair of the Council of Regional Organizations of the Pacific.
“I must honor the progress which my predecessor Dame Meg Taylor has achieved in her time at the helm, and through the pandemic,” Puna said. “Her contribution and achievements during her tenure have my warmest respect, and speak to her passion for the founding values of the Pacific Islands Forum.”
Taylor, who will be returning to Papua New Guinea once international travel resumes.
Puna reaffirmed the importance of maintaining strong collective efforts to progress regional priorities including the development of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Continent, Covid-19, climate change, fisheries, maritime boundaries, nuclear legacy issues, and continuing to engage with members and partners in preparation for the global launch of the Pacific Resilience Facility later this year.