KEYNOTE ADDRESS by H.E. Rt. Hon. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara

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H.E. Rt. Hon. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara
Former Prime Minister and President of Fiji Islands

On the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the South Pacific Forum of Leaders Yaren, Nauru

August 16, 2001

(Read by Hon. Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, Deputy Prime Minister, Fiji)

Your Excellency the President of Nauru, distinguished guests. I feel deeply honoured to have been invited to speak on this occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the South Pacific Forum of Leaders. And I thank you very much for being given the opportunity to do so.

Thirty years is the estimated normal span of a generation, so if at times I seem out of date, I plead the defence of the generation gap! However, I suppose it is because I may be considered one of the founding members, that you have invited me here today, and asked me to trace the origins and development of the Forum. And as I look around, I take on the task with more confidence, as there are very few who can check the accuracy of my account!

In my view, there were two main strands which came together to form the fabric of the Forum. The first was the South Pacific Commission, the body formed after the Second World War by metropolitan powers who had dependencies in the South Pacific. The intentions were good and honourable at the time, and useful results were achieved in the economic and social fields. It also provided a useful meeting place for South Pacific people. However, the boundaries of social and economic matters were rigidly observed; and further more there a situation where representatives of the islands could discuss and make recommendations, but decisions were firmly reserved for the metropolitan countries (I nearly said "masters").

We began to find this irksome, to use no stronger word; and as our territories moved towards, and achieved independence, we found the ban on political discussion in the Forum frustrating. And, perhaps because we were growing up, what was probably simply no more than paternalism, began to seem to us like arrogance. We eventually sorted this out, not without boycotts and walkouts I must confess, and established a system of greater participation by island countries, including the appointment of a number of distinguished and able islanders to the post of Secretary General. But it was not until 1985 that the Commission finally adopted a resolution that gave all members equal status.

The second strand was a commercial one. At the same time as the simmering discontent over the Commission, the banana producing countries of the South Pacific supplying New Zealand formed the Pacific Islands Producers Association, PIPA for short, aimed at improving the price we received for our fruit. And here I must pay tribute to Western Samoa, who was receiving a higher price because of their close political association with New Zealand. In a spirit of regional cooperation, and potential sacrifice, they declined the preferential price and suggested we make a joint approach for a better price overall. This we did, and succeeded. In due course, PIPA widened its course and was formalised into the South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation, or SPEC; and this eventually became the Secretariat of the Forum. It can therefore be seen that both strands had elements of protest.

It was in 1971 that the two strands came together. I was invited by the heads of government in Western Samoa, Tonga, Nauru and Cook Islands to arrange a meeting of independent or self-governing island territories. Being unwilling to suggest Fiji as a venue, both on grounds of expense and to avoid any suspicion of seeking a Fiji hegemony, I asked Sir Keith Holyoake, the New Zealand Prime Minister, whether he would host such a meeting, and he readily agreed. At that time, there was some opposition to the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand, on the ground that they did not really share our problems, and that they dominate discussions to the jeopardy of the islands. I argued in favour of their inclusion on the basis that political independence was meaningless without an economic component. I thought that greater political maturity would enable us to benefit from their experience in government systems and techniques. My view eventually prevailed, though I have sometimes wondered since whether this may not have been a mistake.

But at first it seemed to work, and we had sympathetic figures in Australia and New Zealand who blended well into the pattern; but it may have been a measure of our reservations and perhaps even skepticism, that the island leaders held preliminary discussions on their own before the formal plenary sessions, in order to settle an agreed line. I think Australia and New Zealand thought we were ganging up on them, and in a way we were. But in fact, this process simplified and shortened discussion. And certainly, as far as the island countries were concerned, it was all very informal and friendly.

As time went on, however, and with the accession of more members, our discussions tended to become more formal. Several of those countries had people who had attended the United Nations and other international organisations, and the practices of such bodies began to creep into our meetings. Australia and New Zealand could also, as was feared, in a sense dominate the Forum, because they had the staff to prepare their case and could come very well briefed. The result was that long documents were produced by officials for leaders to read, worded like presentations to the General Assembly. My belief has always been that leaders must have free rein to talk on any subject they want, for after all, they have the ultimate responsibility. I think I may have subconsciously modeled this view on Pierre Trudeau’s suggestion, now established practice at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, that there should be an informal weekend where leaders could meet without officials and talk about any matters they wanted.

One of the proposals that came up was that with the establishment of the Forum, there was no further need for the South Pacific Commission. However, in the end it was realized that it provided a meeting place for members who were not yet independent and could not therefore join the Forum. So we felt we should stick by our friends until they could join us.

We also, I think very sensibly, decided that meetings should take place in different countries each time. This gave us an opportunity to show each other what we were doing and to learn from each other, both from success and failure.

I sometimes felt that I may have been thought to take too much on myself during discussions; but in a way I played a role like that of continuity staff in film-making. For there were not great changes in the topics we discussed over the years, and there were new members who lacked the background, which I could fill in for them. When I looked back to 1972 I found that our final communiqué referred to: trade and economic cooperation; nuclear testing; the University of the South Pacific; regional shipping; tourism; and the relationship of countries to the European Community. Some of these fell by the wayside like the regional bank proposal, and others went well like the regional shipping, but in general there was little change in our agenda. So I hope my experience may have contributed to shorten and focus discussion.

And what have been the achievements of the Forum? Well, I have already mentioned the Forum Shipping Line, and then there was the establishment of the Forum Shipping Agency to provide a coordinated and harmonized position regarding distant-water fishing nations, consequent on the Law of the Sea Convention. And previous to that, we had urged all members to ratify the Convention so that it could take effect as soon as possible. Gradually the united voice of the people of the Pacific began to be heard and heeded in international bodies, and there was an increased aid flow into Forum agencies for regional cooperation and development. The SPARTECA agreement has also proved a benefit in facilitating island exports. So these are real achievements to the credit of the Forum, and there are doubtless more, since as I said at the outset, I am probably a victim of the generation gap.

In one regard, however, I would sound a note of warning. We have to be very vigilant to ensure that we remain fully in control of our own destinies. We began to find that too often, aid had strings attached, and projects were devised which were more in line with the thinking of the donors than the recipients. And there was a suspicion that some projects were devised to further the interests, and dare I say it, benefit of individual experts. No names, no pack drill, but I have to say that the United Nations agencies have been the quickest and most sensitive in adapting to a changing climate. This is particularly evident in their employment of qualified Pacific Islanders to implement schemes in neighbouring territories, where they have been eminently acceptable and successful.

And here I must confess to a certain sense of disappointment with our metropolitan members. They have not always been ready to show understanding of our problems. And they have sought to impose their solutions in an insensitive way, when left to ourselves we could work things out in what we have come to call the Pacific Way.

As for the future, I would like to see the Forum increase cooperation with the Association of South East Asian Nations (or ASEAN), which is perhaps the fastest growing area of the world; though I realize this is not entirely in our hands. And we must continue and strengthen the Pacific role in the association of African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP); with the European Community; and use to the full, our observer status at the United Nations.

I have now reached the point where you – and I – can hardly wait for me to finish. But on a very positive note the Forum has become a potent factor in advancing the name and needs of the South Pacific and can be rightly proud of the achievement. In congratulating you on your 30th anniversary and wishing you every success for the future, I think the two requirements will be cooperation and leadership. Given these, the future is assured.

Just one word – at the outset, it was we, the old men who dreamt dreams. I now call on the young men and women to see visions. For where there is no vision the people perish.

[Note: Ratu Mara is the sole survivor of the seven co-founders of the South Pacific Forum established in 1971.]

For additional information, contact: Ulafala Aiavao at [email protected] 

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