August 19, 2003 - Department of State: U.S. Looks Forward to Peace Corps' Return to Papua New Guinea

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U.S. Looks Forward to Peace Corps' Return to Papua New Guinea

U.S. Looks Forward to Peace Corps' Return to Papua New Guinea

Text: U.S. Looks Forward to Peace Corps' Return to Papua New Guinea
(Ambassador-designate Robert Fitts at June 18 Senate panel) (1270)

Ambassador-designate to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu Robert Fitts says the United States looks forward to the day when the Peace Corps can return to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

In a June 18 statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Fitts, who started his diplomatic career in Papua New Guinea, said the United States should continue to stress international standards of rule of law and democracy in the Pacific region.

He also noted the importance of working with island nations to thwart international terrorism by such means as enhancing border enforcement capabilities.

Following is the text of Fitts's remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, as prepared for delivery:

(begin text)

Ambassador-designate to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands & Vanuatu

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

June 18, 2003

Mr. Chairman:

Thank you very much for the privilege of appearing before you this afternoon as President Bush's nominee to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the nations of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I am h0onored by the President's and Secretary Powell's confidence in me, and if confirmed, I will work to the best of my ability to justify their confidence. My wife, Pichaya, is here with me today.

Most Americans know of these countries only from their role in the Pacific campaign during World War II. Major offensives against the Japanese took place on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and New Ireland, New Britain and Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. New Guinea itself was a major battleground as U.S. and allied forces advanced towards the liberation of the Philippines. Vanuatu served as a key military staging area. Today, the Casualty Identification Laboratory in Hawaii still seeks to identify the remains of our WWII service men and women which are still being recovered from remote battle sites in these island nations. Images from sixty four years ago remain fresh in the public mind through the enduring musical "South Pacific" which was set in Vanuatu.

However, real events have moved on. By the early 1980's, each of these nations achieved independence. Happily, bilateral relationships with the United States have remained strong. Indeed, in 1975 I began my Foreign Service career in our newly established Embassy in Port Moresby. I vividly recall the friendship extended to the new American diplomatic staff, a friendship founded during the earlier war period. Today, these nations face growing economic and political challenges. In our mutual interest, the United States must continue to stress vigilant adherence to international standards of democracy, law and order and good governance. Moreover, as a friend of long standing, the United States can also play a helpful role by promoting much-needed economic reforms, such as those that have been introduced in each country by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank. We maintain a Peace Corps presence in Vanuatu and look forward to the day when the Peace Corps can return to PNG and the Solomon Islands. HIV/AIDS is a growing problem in Melanesia that must be addressed with the U.S., Australia and others taking the lead.

Sadly, strife is no stranger to these islands. The United States can contribute to peace in the region by continuing to support the initiative to end years of ethnic violence on PNG's Bougainville province through an agreement that will provide the people of Bougainville with substantial autonomy in managing their affairs. Large-scale ethnic violence on the Island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Island effectively ended after the Townsville Peace accords brokered by Australia and New Zealand came into effect in 2000. We must urge the people and government of the Solomon Islands to build on that process and disarm those that still have weapons and to create an environment where law and order prevail.

At the same time, the United States is seeking opportunities for cooperation in the region to combat terrorism and the emergence of white-collar crime such as money laundering. Senior legal, law enforcement, and financial regulatory officials representing 14 island state members of the Pacific Islands Forum attended the Pacific Island Regional Counter-terrorism (CT) Workshop in Honolulu in March 2002. We funded the participation of financial regulatory officials from the islands in the Bali Conference on Combating Money Laundering and Terrorist Finance in December 2002. Legal and law enforcement experts from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have been working with their island counterparts to improve their border enforcement capabilities and legal infrastructure.

However, much work remains to be done. And, given the dangers which we have seen can arise in nations with weak democratic institutions, inadequate legal infrastructure and weak border controls, this work is vital. We are now working with the Secretariat of the Pacific Islands Forum on a project focused on enacting and implementing standard legal provisions across the Pacific to facilitate regional law enforcement cooperation and compliance with UNSCR 1373 and the Convention on Transnational Organized Crime. We need to encourage these nations to strengthen democratic institutions and values, which are essential to the long-term struggle against terrorism.

The Southwest Pacific, especially Papua New Guinea, has incredible biodiversity and extensive mineral, fish and timber resources. However, decades of weak government have not resulted in this natural wealth benefiting the general public. If confirmed, I intend to work with American companies, regional organizations, government agencies and non-governmental organizations to assist these countries to develop their resources in a sustainable and productive way.

U.S. business activity in the region is limited. If confirmed, I would work to improve the climate for foreign investors, realizing the formidable practical difficulties. Nearly all U.S. developmental assistance to the Island States ceased in 1996, limiting our ability to influence local policy. However, USAID has just begun a three-year HIV/AIDS intervention project in PNG which we hope will energize efforts to meet this rapidly growing threat.

Also, using Economic Support Funds, the State Department administers an Economic Assistance Agreement associated with the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. This agreement was renewed in 2003 along with a package of amendments to the Treaty itself that will provide important new benefits for the U.S. fishing industry. Through this agreement the U.S. Government provides $18 million annually. The U.S. fishing industry contributes a further $3 million in license fees. According to World Bank statistics, this is a return for catch value far greater than that provided by other distant water fishing nations. The Agreement represents a prime example of targeted aid that assist developing countries while also providing a tangible benefit to an important segment of the U.S. economy. If confirmed, I would work to maintain this important arrangement in order to ensure that U.S. tuna fishing vessels continue to have access to regional waters through the South Pacific Tuna Treaty and to ensure that the Pacific Island states continue to receive the assistance necessary to promote good governance and management of their natural resources. In this way, both America and the countries of the region would benefit from the sustainable management of the region's natural resources.

Given the urgency of world events, U.S. interests in these island nations may seem limited, but they remain important. I am confident that we can make progress in each of these endeavors.

Thank you for the honor of appearing before you. I would be happy to answer any questions.

(end text)

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Story Source: Department of State

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