Pacific countries select new chief diplomat after fractious vote

Mr Henry Puna was named the new Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum after talks stretched for more than 12 hours.
Mr Henry Puna was named the new Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum after talks stretched for more than 12 hours.PHOTO: FORUMSEC.ORG

CANBERRA (REUTERS) - A former Cook Islands prime minister was on Thursday (Feb 4) named the new Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum after marathon talks that threaten to fracture the grouping that promotes regional peace, harmony and security.

Mr Henry Puna was named after talks stretched for more than 12 hours.

He eventually defeated Mr Gerald Zackious, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States, by nine votes to eight.

Mr Puna will now lead the region's push for more aggressive global action on tackling climate change.

The process, however, threatens to fracture the 50-year-old grouping, which includes Australia and New Zealand and 16 other mostly smaller island states dotted across the South Pacific.

Micronesian states said last year it was their turn to fill the post and threatened to leave the forum if they were not permitted.

"This has been an incredibly damaging 24 hours for Pacific regionalism and unity, the repercussions of which will be felt for years to come," said Mr Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Programme at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank.

The sparsely populated Pacific island countries control vast swathes of resource-rich oceans, and their strategic locations have in recent years become battlegrounds for influence between China and the United States and its allies.