On June 13, the first person to be elected as President from the Pacific islands was elected at the UN General Assembly’s 71st Session.
Fiji’s ambassador to the United Nations, Peter Thomson, was elected after beating out Andreas Mavroyiannis, of Cyprus, by four votes. This was a rare occasion where a vote was required: the President is generally chosen by geographical rotation and each region puts forth their candidate. If there is no consensus on which candidate should be put forth, a rare secret-ballot vote takes place to elect a President.
The President is able to control the discussions in the General Assembly. This is an extremely powerful position given the General Assembly is where all 192 member states meet to discuss international issues. The President is able to control time limits on speakers, suspend or adjourn debates and can informally discuss with delegations proposals for solutions.
Thomson is a fifth generation Fijian who has put climate change, especially in relation to the oceans, high on the agenda. Given the unique position of Pacific island nations in experiencing the effects of climate change, it will be an issue that will receive greater prominence over this next session of the General Assembly. Fiji was the first country to ratify the Paris climate deal in late 2015.
Also on the agenda will be the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Thomson has stated his desire to progress the 17 goals more actively in the Assembly. ‘The fact is we have to implement that agenda again if we’re going to produce an environment, or sustain an environment, where our grandchildren can live on this planet,’ Thomson said. ‘We must all embrace those [sustainable development] goals – they’re the recipe for our survival on this planet’. These goals, to be fully implemented by 2030, include the eradication of poverty, the ending of world hunger, ensuring the availability of clean water and access to modern and clean energy, among others. Given his staunch advocacy for the expansion of the UN development system and his experience in the UN Development Programme, the UN Population Fund and the UN Office for Project Services, Ambassador Thomson was well regarded for the role.
The elevation of Thomson to this prolific role is also a momentous occasion for the Pacific islands. This platform will give them greater say in responding to regional and global issues. The Pacific Community’s (SPC) Director-General, Dr Colin Tukuitonga, hailed the election as an important milestone for the Pacific islands and noted Ambassador Thomson’s many achievements as a representative of Fiji and the islands. In 2014, Thomson was the chief proponent of the resolution that sought to solidify SPC’s status as a Permanent Observer to the General Assembly, demonstrating his commitment to the region.
Thomson will assume the position on September 13 when the 71st Session begins.