Fiji Day Address by Ambassador Peter Thomson, Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations

New York
Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bula vinaka Excellencies,

Welcome to this celebratory lunch in honour of Fiji.  Thank you for the privilege of your company, for through you we have your nation’s presence here with us on this our national day.

I'd like to begin this national day address on the subject of UN peacekeeping. I'm sure you're all aware of Fiji's dedication to UN peacekeeping, with over three decades of service having been given by Fiji to that cause. In furtherance of our peacekeeping tradition, when security conditions deteriorated in the Golan Heights this year and the UN found itself in an hour of need, Fiji answered the call.  At very short notice, in July we dispatched 501 Fijian soldiers to Syria to shore up UNDOF.

We had done the same in Basra, Iraq in 2011, when the UN found itself exposed. Many of you know that since 2004, Fiji has been providing the UN guard for UNAMI in Iraq, where we have a current strength of 191 military personnel.  Meanwhile Fiji has been serving continuously in the Multinational Force of Observers in the Sinai since 1982 with a strength of 338 soldiers.

This month 21 Fijian policemen are on their way to UNAMID to assist Dafur overcome its troubles, while since 2006 we have maintained a strength of 31 policemen and women in Liberia's UNMIL. In South Sudan, Fiji is providing 4 corrections officers, 14 police and 6 military personnel to help out with security for UNMISS. In terms of what lies ahead for our peacekeepers, we have let it be known that Fiji stands ready to consider meeting the needs of UN peacekeeping wherever they arise.

The fact that peacekeeping is one of the central planks of Fiji's foreign policy, is one of the reasons Fiji was so determined to see a positive outcome to the Senior Advisory Group process at the UN this year. This process is aimed at securing long-overdue increased reimbursement rates for UN peacekeepers and it aims to achieve this goal by multi-million dollar offset-savings from peacekeeper rotation cycles being changed from six to twelve months, while also making the rules for contingent-owned equipment more cost-efficient. When many months of negotiations by ambassadors and experts resulted in deadlock in May, the USA and Fiji were tasked with achieving resolution. Breakthrough was achieved and the resulting reforms to UN peacekeeping are now underway, including the continuation of the temporary increase in UN troop cost reimbursement rates.

The reason Fiji was given that important task was of course because of our 2013 Chairmanship of the Group of 77 and China - a group that has grown to 133 Member States thanks to the admission last month of the Republic of Kiribati. Many of you present are Group of 77 Permanent Representatives and I thank you once again for the privilege you have given Fiji of serving the Group.

There is another privilege that has come with the chairing of the Group of 77. I refer to the sense of honour that derives from leading a team of fine young Fijian diplomats who have done Fiji proud at every turn this year.  They have been chairing endless meetings, co-ordinations, and negotiations; sorting out other peoples' problems, mediating, persuading, listening, listening and listening; researching, writing, circulating and delivering Group statement after Group statement. They've done these duties here in New York and wherever the Group has required them to be in 2013, from Namibia to Switzerland, from Kenya to Poland, from Austria to Tajikistan.

I ask these Fijian diplomats to stand up that you may acknowledge them too: Luke Daunivalu, Sai Navoti, Yolinda Chan, Eliesa Tuiloma, Namita Khatri, Peni Suveinakama and Lavinia Rokovucago. Vinaka vaka levu, no country could ask for better service than you have given as the Group of 77's Chairmanship team this year. Please join me in giving them a hand.

I'd like to say a few words about how things are going for Fiji as we approach our parliamentary elections next year. My preamble is that every natural born diplomat I've ever met, knows you've got to keep doors open, that you need to dialogue meaningfully, even with those with whom you profoundly disagree, and that there are always solutions if you are patient enough, if you have enough empathy to understand the other's perspective and meld it with your own.

With all the pressures we've been under at the UN lately, I had adopted a helpful mantra given to me by a friend, "Deal with one hell at a time!" But listening to the speeches at the opening of UNGA's 68th session last month, I heard a wise man say something that became my new lodestar. He said, "Change is inevitable, progress is not. Leadership makes the difference."

At the time, I was sitting in the General Assembly next to the Prime Minister of Fiji, so I wrote those words down and passed them across to him, for it is his leadership that has spearheaded the steady progress of the Fiji Roadmap for Democracy. And it is his leadership that will take our country to its historic destiny, that of parliamentary elections next year, when for the first time Fiji's voters will cast their ballots with equal value regardless of their racial origins.

Some of you may not know that in each of the three Constitutions that ruled Fiji between 1970 and 2009, we were legally divided into three racial categories. With whatever good intentions those arrangements were put in place at the time, it is obvious in retrospect that ultimately they could never have been good for national unity. Four coups d'etat are the proof of that statement.

I joined the Civil Service of Fiji in 1972, and as a polling supervisor at many elections thereafter, it was always disconcerting to be obliged to separate people according to which of the three racial categories our laws stipulated. We voted from three separate rolls, with some of our votes being recorded on separate ballot-papers for communal candidates who could only come from our respective racial categories.

The Constitution of Fiji promulgated by Fiji's President, HIs Excellency Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, on September 6th this year did away with those prescribed racial divisions. Now all citizens are Fijians, with our citizenship of equal value, and our electoral votes also of equal value, as indeed they should be in any 21st Century democracy.

Incidentally, the new Constitution allows me for the first time in my life, to call myself a Fijian. You may appreciate that as a fifth generation Fijian, and after a lifetime of service to Fiji, that provision of the new Constitution is deeply meaningful to me.

A couple of days after I heard the "leadership makes the difference" mantra, I was sitting next to Prime Minister Bainimarama again. This time we were up in the Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's conference room. The Prime Minister presented the Secretary-General with a copy of Fiji's new Constitution and after receiving it the Secretary-General said he hoped Fiji's elections next year would be credible and transparent. I was so proud of the Prime Minister when he responded from the heart, saying, "Your Excellency, with everything Fiji has been through, we cannot afford to have anything but credible and transparent elections next year." I was witness to the spontaneity of that remark and the look of gratification with which the Secretary-General responded.

In closing, I'd like to repeat the words of thanks of the three other Fiji Day luncheons I've hosted in New York since 2010, when I expressed sincere gratitude to those friends who have given Fiji understanding, space and encouragement to faithfully pursue the reform Roadmap that Fiji set for itself in 2009.  During that time, our colleagues in the Pacific Small Island Developing States have been the rock on which the Fiji Mission to the United Nations has stood, and now we are given daily strength and energy by the support of the three constituent continents of the Group of 77 and China.

In expressing those thanks, there was always the implicit recognition that Fiji's great national undertaking was one that only the people and government of Fiji could undertake. It was our journey. We had to get our national house in order. We had to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

Now with less than a year to go, we are almost there. The Fiji Roadmap has always stated that parliamentary elections would be held before the end of September, 2013, and they will be. I stress that, because there are some who would claim it is because of their external pressure that Fiji is proceeding to elections next year. That is a fallacious contention and a poor reflection on their credibility on the subject.

Thus, for the record, let all understand that the credit for Fiji's reforms, for the new Constitution, for the forthcoming elections, for the calm manner in which all this has been and is being achieved, lies entirely with Fijians. Which I'm sure you'd all agree is the way it should be.

To conclude these words on Fiji Day, I would like to propose a toast. But before I do that I want to share with you my hope for the year ahead. During the last four years my constant prayer has been that our nation peacefully proceeds along the course set out by the Fiji Roadmap, so that we may calmly transition back into Parliamentary Democracy in 2013. To date, that prayer for calm progress has been answered, thanks to clear leadership and the good instincts of the people of Fiji.

With less than a year to go before the elections, my prayer now is that the leaders of the political parties who will be contesting the elections, take stock of what really matters, so that they may put the fundamental priorities of our nation above their parochial interests. So much rests on their shoulders in ensuring that these transitional elections are contested on higher ground, thereby setting us on course for a sound future. To echo the Prime Minister's words: with all that we have been through, we cannot afford to have the old politics of threats, race and entrenched privilege divide us again.

If that last prayer is also answered, I believe next year's elections will usher in a new era of prosperity for Fiji and its people; an era on the cusp of which we have been, ever since our independence in 1970. May it be so.

And so to my Fiji Day toast. It is made in honour of all those who serve in the blue helmets of the United Nations, bringing relief and order to the people of the fiercely troubled places of this world. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs’ is the kingdom of heaven."  I ask you to rise with me now and toast the servicemen and servicewomen of the United Nations peacekeeping forces. "To the peacekeepers!"

Thank you.

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