President of the Republic of Fiji

Monday 10th February 2014

Your Excellency the President, Anote Tong and the First Lady Madam Meme Tong,
Honourable Ministers,
Your Excellencies the High Commissioners and Ambassadors,
Members of the Diplomatic Corp,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen

Bula vinaka, good evening and kam na mauri

I bring you the warmest greetings of the Fijian people and the Fijian government.

It is indeed a great honour for me and my wife Adi Koila to be making this official visit to Kiribati. And it is an even greater pleasure to be amongst friends - old friends, with common values and a common destiny as Pacific neighbours.

Together, we face many of the same challenges. Together, we are working to meet those challenges. And I want to express my sincere thanks to you, President Tong, for your regional leadership and especially for your unwavering support for Fiji.

Under your government, the relationship between Fiji and Kiribati has never been closer. You are a frequent and a most welcome visitor to our shores. You are a trusted friend and confidant.

And yes you have been steadfast and constant.

You have understood the particular challenges we have faced in Fiji. You have argued our case in global forums and in the international media. When others wavered, you came, you listened and you engaged.

We especially appreciate your presence, your contribution and your leadership at successive engaging with the Pacific summits in Fiji and at the inaugural gathering of the Pacific islands development forum in Nadi last august.

Together, we are building new regional structures to give ordinary Pacific islanders a bigger voice.

The Pacific Islands Development Forum, unlike the Pacific Islands Forum, includes representatives of civil society groups and business. This means that the views of the grassroots are being heard as never before. And unlike the Pacific Islands Forum, the PIDF is a genuinely Pacific Island grouping, relatively free from outside influence.

Together, we are making that Pacific voice heard in the great forums of the world. The Pacific Small Island Developing States - with Fiji playing a leading role – are placing the issues that matter to us, like climate change, before the United Nations and its various agencies. It is the best chance that we have of getting our needs and concerns heard and addressed. These are partnerships that benefit all our people.

Because only by working together closely and speaking with one voice can we hope to be heard above the competing interests of other nations.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, I have come to Kiribati as part of Fiji’s effort to bind us even closer together. But in my meetings, I have been and will continue to do so of explaining the huge strides we have made and are making in Fiji to produce a nation that is fairer, more just and provides better opportunities for every Fijian.

Before the end of September, we will hold the first genuinely democratic election in our history, of equal votes and of equal value instead of the racially weighted formula employed in the past.

We have a new constitution that establishes a common and equal citizenry that guarantees a range of civil and political rights and that provides ordinary Fijians with an unprecedented array of social and economic rights, such as the right to education, housing, and clean water.

This year, we have achieved a wonderful breakthrough in being able to provide our young people with free primary and secondary school education and a tertiary loans scheme so that poverty is no longer a barrier to higher studies. Our national infrastructure - such as our roads and ports - is also being upgraded to encourage investment and create jobs on which the ultimate fortunes of every Fijian depends.

And all over Fiji, rural and maritime communities are gradually and finally receiving basic services such as electricity and water that have been continually promised over the years but never delivered.

This social, economic and political revolution over the past seven years will soon deliver a genuine democracy in Fiji that meets the highest international standards.

We are determined that our general election before the end of September will be free and fair and express the genuine will of the people. Fiji already stands proud and tall in the world – having forged an independent foreign policy based on the fundamental premise of being friends to all and enemies to none. We have hundreds of Fijian troops serving as peacekeepers with the United Nations and the Multi-National Force and Observers in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world protecting vulnerable ordinary people.
And we are sending our civilian volunteers, including teachers and health workers, into our Pacific neighbours to boost their capacity and to improve the lives of their people. We have plans to considerably boost this program in the coming months and years. So while we stress the notion of serving our people at home, we also stress the need to serve our fellow Pacific Islanders and the global community in whatever way we can.

We are especially keen to lead and assist our joint effort to persuade the rest of the world to finally take decisive action on climate change. It is simply not acceptable for the world to stand by and watch the Republic of Kiribati – a sovereign nation and a member of the United Nations - sink slowly beneath the waves.

Fiji is using every possible means at the United Nations and in its agencies to draw attention to your plight and the selfishness of the big carbon polluters in putting their interests before those of us in the Pacific. Our recent leadership of the biggest voting bloc at the United Nations – the G77 plus China – gave us a unique opportunity to advance this cause. We sit on the main United Nations committee on climate change.

And by recently taking the Chair of the Governing Board of the United Nations Development Program, we are also in a position to push our collective agenda forward. This matters not just to the people of Kiribati but to every Pacific Islander. In Fiji, we have already moved one village altogether out of the way of the rising sea and a second will soon be also relocated.

But we have identified a further 676 communities throughout our nation that are threatened in some way, including 42 that will need to be moved in the next five to ten years.

Of course, all this pales into insignificance beside the catastrophe you in Kiribati are facing as low lying atolls – the potential loss of your entire country.

I want to assure you all that Fiji will stand shoulder to shoulder with you as you face this crisis, as well as in doing everything possible to try to avert it. In a worst case scenario and if all else fails, you will not be refugees.

You will be able to migrate with dignity. The spirit of the people of Kiribati will not be extinguished. It will live on somewhere else because a nation isn’t only a physical place.

A nation – and the sense of belonging that comes with it - exists in the hearts and minds of its citizens wherever they may be.

Today I repeat what our Prime Minister told the world at the recent Pacific Islands conference on conservation and protected areas. If the sea level continues to rise because the international community won’t tackle global warming, some or all of the people of Kiribati may have to come and live in Fiji.

Fiji will not turn its back on our neighbours in their hour of need. We accepted the Banaban people when they were forced to leave Ocean Island because of the pressure of phosphate mining there. These people now live in Fiji but have their own seat in the parliament of Kiribati and if necessary, we will do it again.

You have already purchased 6000 acres of land on Fiji’s second biggest island, Vanua Levu, to ensure your food security as the sea encroaches on your arable land. What the future holds we cannot say. But I want to assure you that if all else fails, you have true friends in Fiji who will not let you down. Because only our size and topography – our mountainous interiors – prevent us from suffering the same fate.

I also come with a message that we must all do more as Pacific Islanders to take charge of our own affairs. We need a fundamental change in our psyche – in our mindset - and the way we see the world.

We need to take ownership of our problems, to acknowledge our own roles and responsibilities instead of seeing them as someone else’s.

When someone once asked the great Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew: quote: “What are you going to do for me?”, he replied: “What are you going to do for yourself?” This carries a very important message for us all.

We need to stop looking for donors and start looking for development partners.

And we need to stop asking those partners, “What are you doing for us?” but “What can you do to help us to help ourselves?”. We need to abandon our tendency to seek handouts and ask for leg ups.

There is certainly an urgent need for every one of us in the Pacific to start taking charge of our personal surroundings – to dispose of our rubbish properly; to keep our coastal areas clean; for every man, women and child to pick up the litter, the plastic bags and the empty bottles that are despoiling our beautiful surroundings. It means everyone accepting personal responsibility for the state of our environment.

It means everyone remembering and accepting that our coastal areas and the seas around us are our food source.

We need to preserve and protect our island homes not only for ourselves but for our children and the future generations.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, I look forward very much to seeing more of Kiribati, of meeting more of your people and of strengthening the great ties of friendship between our countries.

Thank you for the wonderful hospitality you have shown me and my wife and my delegation.

Vinaka Vakalevu and kam rabwa (ra-pa)