By ADAM DELANEY
FIJI’S Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, stands tall having presided over the largest international gathering of delegates addressing global climate change policy from 6-17 November 2017, in Bonn, Germany, at the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23).
He was the first Pacific Island Leader to assume this position and it was an assertive play to reverse bad-fortune in regional influence that his country has endured over the past decade.
The ex-Commander-turned politician has ruled Fiji since ousting Laisenia Qarase in a coup in 2006 and has struggled with a key leadership role in Pacific regional cooperation.
Bainimarama has reason to feel that Fiji’s international leadership is on an upswing.
The COP23 Presidency had added to Fiji’s good-will momentum created when it won Gold at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Sevens Rugby and in diplomacy with its Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), H.E.
Peter Thomson, narrowly defeating a Cypriot to the Presidency of the 71st UN General Assembly and the first Pacific Islander to do so.
That job was once sought by PNG in the 1990s for its then Foreign Minister, Sir Michael Somare, who was defeated by Saudi Arabia’s candidate.
Bainimarama had stayed around ten (10) days in Bonn, surrounded by hired Advisers from the multinational law firm, Baker Mckenzie.
This was quite a feat for a Head of Government to sit through a global conference and Bonn city doesn’t exactly have the same charm and history as nearby Cologne.
COP23 had featured issues of serious concern to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and for Fiji and its Prime Minister, it was the confidence-catalyst to boost his past waning influence and Mana amongst his peers in the Pacific Islands region.
In 2009, Fiji was suspended from the peak Pacific regional political body, Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), that was co-founded by Fiji’s Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (then South Pacific Forum), to persuade its Leaders to make the transition towards a democratically-elected Parliament.
Rather than making amends, a prolonged, bitter separation resulted in Fiji establishing an alternative forum in 2013 called the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF).
Fiji had provided seats for Hawaiians, People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation.
Unsurprisingly, Australia and New Zealand were not invited.
It was a poignant declaration by Bainimarama on Fiji’s attractiveness for international development cooperation.
The suspension order was eventually lifted in 2014 following national elections, but it didn’t change Bainimarama’s disinclination on the political currency of the PIF Leaders’ Forum, whilst Australia and New Zealand had seats.
As promised, he didn’t attend the 2017 summit in Samoa.
A consequence of Fiji’s military involvement in Parliament and its current relationship with the PIF is evident in failed campaigns by Fiji’s candidates for PIF endorsement and to hold the top Regional Organisation jobs.
For instance, in 2004, Fiji had nominated respected diplomat and former Foreign Affairs Minister, Kaliopate Tavola, for the post of Secretary-General of the Secretariat of the African, Caribbean, Pacific Group of States (ACP), based in Brussels.
Tavola and a Samoan candidate conceded that race to experienced politician, then PNG’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sir John Kaputin, who took office in 2005 as the first ACP Secretary-General from the Pacific Islands.
Tavola was subsequently nominated for Secretary-General of PIF to succeed Sir Noel Levi from PNG by 2007.
He was very experienced in serving PIF with its Secretariat in Suva.
Three attempts to secure the job by Fiji had failed.
After Levi had completed his term, that job has since been held by the late Greg Urwin (Australia), Tuiloma Neroni Slade (Samoa) and the current, Dame Meg Taylor (PNG).
The blow-back from PIF leaders confirmed that Fiji will not be rewarded so easily in the region until Bainimarama amends and withdraws his views on the membership of PIF.
Disregarding this call, Fiji has turned to embrace other multilateral initiatives to show-case its power-play.
COP23 was the final 2017 calendar event for world leaders to reach agreement on commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement on global climate policy.
As part of SIDS, Fiji, had pronounced itself to the international community and Bainimarama was privy to exclusive discussions inaccessible by other Forum leaders in Bonn.
The COP23 Presidency was Fiji’s global chandelier, saying: Fiji matters; PIDF matters and Fiji remains pivotal to sub-regional action beyond Bonn.
Rhetoric aside, whether his performance as President, made effective gains for SIDS, there is no doubt that he cherished his new bounty that was first mandated by the UN’s Asia-Pacific group.
Using his analogy of ‘not dropping the ball and running with it as hard as he can,’ let’s see if he will cross the line at the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum in the Republic of Nauru.
The Nauruans are hardened negotiators and would certainly hope so.
- Adam Delaney has over 30 years work experience including in Pacific Islands regional politics and international affairs. He is a Doctorate candidate at the University of Wollongong.