8 Nov 2023

Micronesia 'will continue to support' Baron Waqa to lead Pacific Islands Forum

3:31 pm on 8 November 2023
Surangel Whipps Jr in Rarotonga. 7 November 2023.

Surangel Whipps Jr in Rarotonga. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Lydia Lewis

The controversial former Nauru president Baron Waqa is set to be the next Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general, Palau's President Surangel Whipps Jr has confirmed.

"We pledged our support in February and we will continue to support him," Surangel Whipps Jr said in interview speaking exclusively told RNZ Pacific.

Whipps Jr confirmed that the Micronesian Presidents Summit (MPS) bloc reached consensus on the matter at their sub-regional meeting in Rarotonga on Monday (local time) ahead of the Forum Leaders Summit on Thursday.

"We reaffirmed our commitment, of course, had opportunity to see Baron [Waqa] here and hopefully, move forward with the transition and the beginning of the next chapter of leadership."

In April this year, Whipps Jr was among those Pacific leaders who had spoken out about Waqa's appointment to lead the region's premier political organisation.

At the time, he had said that the Micronesian leaders had wanted "the best man or woman for the job" and there was "still time to ask more questions from Nauru about this candidate".

However, he said he has now addressed his concerns directly with Waqa in-person in Rarotonga.

"I asked him [Waqa] that there was concerns about what had happened in the past, and he said one of the things is there was a lawsuit or, you know, he was exonerated for that. There was also questions by the media and it depends on perceptions on anything," Whipps Jr said.

"What's important is each each country is different and especially in small communities, sometimes privacy needs to be respected and protected.

He said sometimes what is reported in the media "is untrue".

"There's always two sides of the story so it's important to hear from both sides. Baron is here, the other leaders are here, they can ask him questions because we need to be transparent.

"As the Micronesians, it's our responsibility to put up a name. We believe that the process was followed. If there's still more questions to be had, he's here to answer."

However, he said freedom of the press is an important avenue and he is hoping that Waqa in his role at the Pacific Islands Forum "can help open those doors and improve" Nauru's engagement with media.

"Media freedom is important to everyone, especially to be accountable to the people, we have to have an a free and open media," he said.

In his first interview with a foreign media since becoming the candidate for the top jo, Waqa told RNZ Pacific "We need to get everyone together. Reunited and refocused again".

Former Nauru president Baron Waqa arrives in Rarotonga for the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum from 6-10 November 2023.

Former Nauru president Baron Waqa arrives in Rarotonga for the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum from 6-10 November 2023. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Lydia Lewis

The Micronesian bloc's decision will be taken to the larger Forum leaders retreat, where leaders are expected to endorse their decision in light of the Suva Agreement.

Forum chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown has also confirmed to RNZ Pacific that he will support whatever the Micronesian leaders decide.

"These are the outcomes of the Suva Agreement that were at the last leaders meeting. This has been accepted by leaders," Brown told RNZ Pacific ahead of the Leaders Summit.

Waqa was in power during the height of the refugee debacle, when Australia started to use Nauru for offshore regional processing.

The operation is still open, the Australian government confirmed that 11"unauthorised maritime arrivals" have been sent to Nauru for regional processing this year.

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