The sight of Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Peter Thomson, chairing the General Assembly is yet another reminder that although Fiji is a relatively small country, it punches way above its weight. This week, Peter has been Acting President of the General Assembly, conducting the everyday business of the UN from the famous podium that has produced some of history’s most memorable images – from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat waving his pistol to Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev banging his shoe. Along with hundreds of speeches from everyone from Che Guevara to Nelson Mandela, from the Queen to Frank Bainimarama.
It was especially apt that with Ambassador Thomson in the chair, the General Assembly considered reports about the financing of UN peacekeeping operations. This is what really makes Fiji an indispensable member of the club of nations – its ability and willingness to provide troops to wear the UN blue beret in some of the world’s toughest places. All Fijians owe a great debt to the men and women of the military who’ve given their unstinting service – and sometimes their lives – to improving the lives of ordinary people in the Middle East and elsewhere by protecting them from conflict. And for sending the money they earn home to help support their communities in Fiji.
It’s made heroes in the most unlikely places of tough but softly spoken people from island villages on the far side of the world. And it’s given a country of which many would otherwise never have heard gratitude and respect. Yes, Fiji gets an important source of revenue from its peacekeeping operations. But it remains one of the few nations able and willing to put its troops in the firing line to defend the UN ideal of collective responsibility for all the world’s people.
Peter Thomson is the latest in a long line of Fijians who’ve represented the country in New York, starting with the late Semesa Sikivou at the time of independence in 1970. He has had a remarkable personal and professional history. The son of Sir Ian Thomson– one of the most respected administrators of the colonial era who stayed on to head the sugar industry and Air Pacific – Peter began his career as a district officer in Fiji and was then a diplomat in Tokyo and Sydney. He was Permanent Secretary for Information when – with a pistol on the table – Sitiveni Rabuka forced him to write the formal announcement of the first coup of 1987. Then, after he became permanent secretary to the then governor-general, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, Peter became a target of ethno-nationalist extremists in the second coup of the same year. He was tracked down and thrown into a prison cell for several days before being forced to leave the country altogether.
Peter effectively spent more than 20 years in exile, first in New Zealand and then Australia, where he became a successful writer and authored Kava in the Blood, a compelling account of his life in Fiji. Then out of the blue three years ago came a call from Frank Bainimarama’s office. Would he agree to represent Fiji at the UN? Would he ever. Grubsheet – an old friend – recalls the immense satisfaction for Peter in being recalled to represent his country of birth. It was as if his life had come full circle, the lifting of a two-decade long punctuation mark in his career of service to Fiji.
In New York, Peter has worked tirelessly for the country’s interests, shifting the axis of its global relationships from its traditional western allies to a policy of being “a friend to all”. He has spearheaded the Bainimarama government’s Look North Policy, launched formal diplomatic relations with more than three dozen countries and organised its membership of the Non Aligned Movement. He has vigorously pursued Fiji’s interests in such areas as tackling global warming and rising sea levels, preserving the maritime environment and, of course, the peacekeeping operations that are so important to the country’s economy and prestige. And he has played a vital role in batting off attempts by Australia and New Zealand to have Fiji excluded from those operations as punishment for the 2006 coup.
Even more importantly, perhaps, Peter has taken steps to fundamentally lift Fiji’s status in the global community. He was a prime mover in the formation of the UN voting bloc known as the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), which gives Pacific nations a far bigger voice in global affairs by acting in concert. PSIDS has succeeded in joining the Asian Group at the UN, which is now officially known as the Asian and Pacific Small Island Developing States Group. This means countries like Fiji gain the benefit of lining up with some of the biggest players of the Asia Pacific region, the global powerhouse of the 21st century. And it has moved these countries out from under the skirts of their “big brothers” Australia and New Zealand, which belong to an entirely separate UN bloc – the Western European and Others Group.
The strategic importance of such a re-alignment cannot be overstated. It certainly underlines a fundamental truth about life in the global village for small nations like Fiji. They may not have the ability to project the same power and influence as their bigger neighbours. But in the UN system, it’s numbers, not brawn, that really counts, except for the five permanent members of the Security Council, who enjoy powers of veto. Every other nation gets just one vote. And that is certainly exercising the minds of the Australians right now as they mount a global campaign to get a temporary Security Council seat. Given Canberra’s present hostility towards Fiji, it certainly cannot expect to get Fiji’s support.
Peter Thomson, of course, is a cog in the wheel of Fiji’s international relationships, albeit a big one. His ultimate boss, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola has been a successful foreign minister and the two enjoy a close relationship as they work with other ambassadors and diplomatic staff to further Fiji’s international ties. And they, in turn, have the confidence of the Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, who’s become an effective advocate himself both for Fiji and the region in global forums – most recently at the environment summit in Brazil. However much the regime’s critics might decry Commodore Bainimarama’s penchant for globe-trotting, a small country’s loudest voice will always come from its leader and lower-level representation rarely has the same impact. It’s simply a fact of life that for Fiji to be heard, the Prime Minister needs to travel widely to properly put its case.
It was Bainimarama who hand picked Peter Thomson for the UN job. Their fathers had known each other in the 1960s when Thomson Senior was Commissioner Western and Bainimarama Senior was the region’s Supervisor of Prisons. Almost half a century on, Grubsheet is pleased to have played a minor part in re-establishing the connection when – after an interview with the Prime Minister- we talked about the old days in the West and I mentioned that Peter and I got together regularly in Sydney to talanoa about Fiji. Bainimarama’s eyes lit up and while he didn’t say so at the time, he evidently began mulling over the possibility of using Peter in some senior role. Soon afterwards, Peter began a private mission – financed by veteran Fiji businessmen Mark Johnson and Dick Smith – to try to bridge the gap between Fiji and its Australian and NZ critics. He went to Port Moresby to enlist the support of the PNG leader, Sir Michael Somare, and the initiative produced the first meeting of the respective parties for some time.
That was in 2009. Three years on and Ambassador Thomson is chairing the United Nations General Assembly. It’s a triumphant personal story, the Kai Valagi (European) civil servant removed at gunpoint and forced to leave Fiji now sitting as moderator and adjudicator at the pinnacle of global affairs. But it’s also one of the triumphs of Bainimarama’s determination to use the best people- irrespective of race – to present Fiji’s face to the world. To see my old mate sitting there on the UN podium – Fiji Water bottle by his side – fills me with pride, as it surely must others who hope that Fiji’s best days as a united, prosperous, multiracial nation lie ahead.