“Let’s get to work!” These were the words of Prime Minister the Hon. Mark Brown to the Cook Islands delegation supporting his attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Special Leaders Retreat (SLR), on his assumption of Pacific Islands Forum Chair responsibilities at the closing ceremony of the SLR on Friday, 24 February, on Denarau Island in Fiji.
The Cook Islands delegation included Special Envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum and Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration (MFAI) Tepaeru Herrmann, as well as Cook Islands High commissioner to Fiji and resident in Suva, Jim Armistead, as well as three officials from MFAI's Pacific and Regional Affairs Division in Rarotonga.
Reflecting on the outcomes of the Special Leaders Retreat, Prime Minister Mark Brown said, “Fiji’s stellar leadership as Forum Chair has been instrumental in the full reunification of our Forum family, including Kiribati’s return to the fold. I was pleased to have worked with colleague Leaders during last week’s SLR to deliver on our collective political commitment to Forum unity and solidarity, including as detailed in the Suva Agreement agreed in June last year.
“As individual governments and the Forum collective, supported by our PIF Secretariat in Suva, and regional agencies across the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific (CROP) family, we now need to get on with the work required to deliver on the directions of Leaders as detailed in July 2022 and February 2023 Forum Leaders Communique.”
In a ceremonial presentation of the Pacific Islands Forum flag at the Special Leaders Retreat closing ceremony, Prime Minister Brown accepted the flag from the outgoing PIF Chair, Prime Minister the Hon. Sitiveni Rabuka, and with it, assumed Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum.
On his leadership approach as PIF Chair, Prime Minister Brown said, “The Cook Islands have long recognised that as a region, we are stronger together. We have been staunch advocates of Pacific unity and solidarity and ensuring that in our collective efforts, the most vulnerable within our Forum family is supported.
“We have also consistently advocated the importance of respecting each other’s evolving political and economic sovereignty. That is the leadership approach I commit to as Forum Chair – prioritising implementation of our Forum decisions, inclusive decision-making, and strengthening CROP coordination – so that we deliver tangible and sustained development outcomes for all our Pacific people. In that regard, I look forward to working closely with Prime Minister Rabuka of Fiji and the Hon. Siaosi Sovaleni, the Prime Minister of Tonga, as the Forum Troika."
A highlight for Prime Minister Brown over the two-day Leader's gathering was the face-to-face opportunity to meet with other Leaders in bilateral meetings, during the Leaders Retreat, and within the margins.
"There is no substitute for face-to-face discussions – for talanoa," said Prime Minister Brown. "The SLR program arranged by Fiji and the Secretariat was not only invaluable in supporting Leaders to discuss bilateral and regional business, share challenges, and learn from each other, it afforded the opportunity to cultivate personal relationships with other Leaders, which can be difficult in a region where direct transport connectivity to each other remains elusive."
Secretary Herrmann and her team met with staff of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat the day after the Special Leaders Retreat to discuss Chair responsibilities, including the Cook Islands hosting obligations for the Leaders Meeting later this year.
The next few weeks will involve further discussions between MFAI and the PIF Secretariat to settle the forward work program and deliverables as Chair, dates for the PIF Leaders Meeting, and a theme. MFAI expects meeting dates and the theme to be announced before the end of March. Similar to the Cook Islands hosting of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders (PIFL) in 2012 a multi-agency committee is expected to be formed to ensure the successful hosting of PIFL in 2023.
Prime Minister Brown said on the Cook Islands hosting of Forum Leaders that, "I do not downplay the challenge of hosting the Leaders Meeting later this year, but I'm confident our government and people will rise to the challenge.
"Just as we hosted the Pacific Islands Forum in 2012 – this year's hosting, within the last quarter of the year, will be a time to showcase our Cook Islands hospitality. We will prepare well – from our farmers, fishermen, market vendors, retailers, tourism operators, and communities – for when we welcome our Forum family from around the region, as well as global partners who wish to engage with the Pacific."