CELEBRATING Our PATH TO UNGA Presidency
Earlier this week Fiji took on the role of the President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
This is an extremely prestigious position that places Fiji at the centre of global governance.
This may be a surprise to some, but it is a fitting acknowledgement of Fiji’s commitment to the United Nations. On this auspicious occasion it’s worth reflecting on how this has come to pass.
Fiji’s Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador Peter Thomson, is taking on the role as the 71st President.
He will be the first representative from the Pacific and only the fourth from Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) to take on this role. This is another first for Fiji, but it is not unprecedented.
All eyes have been on Fiji’s Rugby 7s for winning the Pacific’s first Olympic gold medal, but the Fijian Government has been working similarly hard over the last decade to position Fiji to lead the world’s preeminent institutions.
It was also not a sure thing. The election was close, with the representative from Cyprus losing a secret ballot by 90 to 94 votes, and it ended with a bitter twist. This highlights the huge amount of goodwill and diplomacy needed to succeed on the international stage and the strong track record Fiji has developed.
As Fiji accepts another international honour it’s worth reflecting on the significance of the election.
This outcome speaks volumes about how Fiji is perceived in the international community. This reputation was not built over night and really should be seen as the culmination of a decade of international engagement. Fiji’s ‘Look North Policy’ of foreign engagement, which quickly became in reality a ‘Look North and West policy’, saw Fijian diplomats operating in arenas that hitherto no Pacific Islander had worked and also saw existing strengths, such as UN Peacekeeping, developed and enhanced.
Diplomacy cannot be conducted without diplomats and being ‘friends to all and enemies to none’ became the catchcry. To meet the challenge the Fijian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation quickly expanded by opening seven new embassies and high commissions in the last five years.
Inside the UN, Fiji has stepped up its active engagement with global issues.
This is most notable in relation to Climate Change, but Fiji also is the current President of the Council of the International Seabed Authority and President of the executive board of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). No doubt Fiji will use its presidency to continue working to get a just and equitable international response to climate change and see significant action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Outside the UN system Fiji supported alternative forms of international collaboration, such as taking on the Chair of the G77 plus China group of states. This is another elected position (the G77 actually has 133 members) and again this was the first time in the organisation’s history that a Pacific Small Island Developing State had been Chair.
Closer to home Fiji has been an active member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), which it currently Chairs, and has sponsored the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) which is growing to be the voice of an independent Pacific.
All of this tireless diplomacy has built Fiji’s credentials to take on the presidency of the UN. However there is one single area where Fiji has consistently excelled, peacekeeping.
This is the area where most diplomats in the UN system will have learnt about Fiji’s strong reputation and in the light of the Presidency of the UNGA it makes sense to highlight Fiji’s Peacekeeping track record.
Today peacekeeping is at a crossroads with greater challenges developing in a far more complex operational environment. We only have to look back over the last few months to see peacekeepers directly targeted on several occasions.
As active peacekeepers Fijian troops have been on the receiving end of intense attacks. Most recently this occurred in South Sudan, but American and Fijian troops in the Sinai were also targeted earlier in the year.
Many traditional peacekeeping nations have been reducing their commitments and it has been more difficult for the UN to maintain credible forces.
Last year Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama was invited to New York to attend President Barack Obama’s Peacekeeping Summit.
The aim was to shore up support for peacekeeping and plan for the implications of responding to an operating environment where civilians and It seems that globally there is less peace to keep and more peace to make. Nonetheless Fiji committed more troops to peacekeeping and the PM noted that:
“Fiji has paid a high price for its peacekeeping vocation. Fijian blood has been shed for the sake of peace, security and prosperity worldwide and for the protection of the innocent…I am here today to assure you that our commitment is firm and we will do more.”
So Fiji stands firm to do its part to respond to the increasingly hostile international environment.
Over 50 Fijian soldiers have been killed on UN Peacekeeping missions. There can be no more potent symbol than the nation’s political will stand firm when blood is spilled in a foreign country.
It is even more significant if it’s a distant conflict that does not directly affect Fiji’s national interests. The fact that the operations are only relevant to Fiji insofar as the maintenance of peace and security is a responsibility of global citizenship ensures Fiji’s impartiality.
While other nations are withdrawing from peacekeeping or not following through on their promises, Fiji is pledging more.
This is becoming a habit that the UN has come to admire, respect and increasingly rely on. Notably back in 2004 the UN was desperate for countries to provide troops to defend the mission in Iraq. However, donour nations shied away from placing their troops in the increasingly hostile environment.
Fiji stood firm and continued to play a significant role in Iraq for years to come.
The focus on peacekeeping is not new, it is the emphasis placed on it that has changed. Fiji has a long track record of peacekeeping that has earned respect and esteem from the international community.
Soon after independence then prime minister the Hon. Ratu Mara directed Colonel Paul Manueli to investigate the possibility of Fiji participating in peacekeeping. Ratu Mara wanted the fledging nation to contribute to the international organisation that has so positively welcomed Fiji into the international community.
However, resources were scarce and Mara believed that there could be no better aim than to contribute to the protection of international peace and security by providing peacekeepers.
Colonel Manueli is a Sandhurst educated professional soldier and Fiji’s first Fijian Chief of the Defence Force. He did not rush into peacekeeping, but dutifully prepared forces for the role.
A few years later, when events in Lebanon transpired to lead the UN to call for volunteers Colonel Manueli ensured that Fijian soldiers would be well prepared to meet the challenges they would face in a military operation on the other side of the world.
In fact, once the call came Fiji was able to deploy forces in four months, a record that amazed many at the time.
After these modest beginnings Fiji’s support for peacekeeping has not wavered. A perfect example that captures Fiji’s Peacekeeping lineage neatly comes one from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Operation.
This example highlights the steady development of Fiji’s leadership credentials that has led to the Presidency of the UNGA today.
In the 1990s a Fiji officer was chosen to command the UNIFIL Operation in Southern Lebanon. This was the first time a Pacific Islander has assumed such a strategic role.
This ‘soldier’ handpicked to be the Assistant Secretary General is someone Fijians know well, but most likely in his current role as Head of State or through his tireless work promoting the fight against NCDs.
The Force Commander was none other than Major General J. K. Konrote.
The size of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has fluctuated over time, but in the late 1990s Major General Konrote commanded 4500 personnel from eight countries.
To command a UN Operation of this size and complexity is a great honour, which highlights the respect and admiration with which the officer is held by his peers and by the UN political establishment.
Major General Konrote has noted that there was nothing ‘interim’ about the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The conflict has been going on for nearly 40 years.
And Major General Konrote should know as earlier in his career he was also posted to UNIFIL as a junior officer in charge of the Fijian contingent.
As a Battalion Commander in Lebanon in the 1980s, Konrote was respected by all parties, Israelis, local militia and other UN forces alike. Under his command the Fijian forces were repeatedly tested under fire and grew a reputation as effective and uncompromising peacekeepers (when it came to upholding the UN Mandate).
Fiji has been a longstanding supporter of UNIFIL and currently has around 200 personnel deployed in Lebanon.Ultimately 35 Fijian troops have been killed defending the values of tolerance and respect for law that peacekeeping upholds.
The intensity of UNIFIL can be measured by the fact that Fijian casualties there represent the majority of the 53 Fijians that have been killed in 10 UN operations since 1978.
If the casualties are measured by head of population (per capita) then this places Fiji high on the list of countries, further cementing Fiji’s credentials as a strong supporter of international peace and security.
This early experience and the lessons learned from sometimes-bitter opposition from the warring parties the peacekeepers were trying to separate did him in good stead in his career.
It also allowed him to have a particularly keen understanding of the lay of the land when he returned as Force Commander.
Few countries produce officers who can aspire to be a UN Force Commander and even less have been able to produce some one who has been able to make such a mark in history.
As Fiji settles into the Presidency of the General Assembly we should reflect on the proud history of engagement with the UN.
The current Government has worked tirelessly over the last decade to display regional and international leadership, but the path can be traced right back to the founding fathers of the nation and their visionary decision in the 1970s to develop a peacekeeping strategy.
No doubt this latest achievement will allow Pacific interests in countering Climate Change and responding to the SDGs elevated to centre stage!