Peter Thom­son on steer­ing the UN. Lyn­dal Row­lands

Fi­jian del­e­gate Peter Thom­son leaves the pres­i­dency of the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly de­cry­ing the United States’ with­drawal from the Paris agree­ment, and warn­ing of cli­mate-re­lated threats to the world’s oceans. By Lyn­dal Row­lands.

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Peter Thom­son is pick­ing up de­bris along New York’s East River. When he comes across a par­tic­u­larly stub­born bag, lodged tight in the ground, he wres­tles with it for a while. Even­tu­ally, he asks for a knife to free it: he’s not pre­pared to leave it be­hind.

The self-de­scribed fifth-gen­er­a­tion Fi­jian is ob­serv­ing Nel­son Man­dela Day’s tra­di­tion of 67 min­utes of com­mu­nity ser­vice, ac­knowl­edg­ing Man­dela’s 67 years of ac­tivism. He has ven­tured onto the rocks near a dan­ger­ous stretch of wa­ter known as Hell Gate, which re­minds him of the white wa­ter at the en­trance to ev­ery Pa­cific is­land. His body­guard hov­ers above, near a group of younger New York City vol­un­teers who stay safely on the grass.

A cou­ple of weeks later we meet in Thom­son’s of­fice, perched just above the East River, a few kilo­me­tres down­stream. Our in­ter­view is sand­wiched be­tween an un­ex­pected meet­ing with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Kaza­khstan and Thom­son’s weekly Fri­day af­ter­noon meet­ing with the pres­i­dent of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

He is the out­go­ing pres­i­dent of the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly. Un­like the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, which is be­holden to the lat­est mis­sile test from Py­ongyang or siege in Mo­sul, the Gen­eral As­sem­bly is fo­cused on more slow-burn­ing is­sues: refugees, an­timi­cro­bial re­sis­tance, nu­clear weapons, cli­mate change and oceans. As pres­i­dent, Thom­son is re­spon­si­ble for ral­ly­ing the UN’s 193 mem­ber states. Not an easy task in a year when Don­ald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un have other ideas.

Thom­son had been in of­fice just eight weeks the morn­ing his wife woke him to tell him that Trump had been elected. Look­ing back now, he de­scribes the in­creas­ingly bi­lat­eral be­hav­iour of the United States and Rus­sia as “not some­thing I would bet my grand­chil­dren’s fu­ture on”. In his South Pa­cific ac­cent, Thom­son of­ten speaks in terms of gen­er­a­tions.

Out­go­ing pres­i­dent of the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly Peter Thom­son.

“It’s dark days, quite frankly,” he says of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Trump is ex­pected to make his first ap­pear­ance in the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly hall in Septem­ber, when Fiji will pass the reins to Slo­vakia. While Fiji is the first Pa­cific Is­land coun­try to hold the pres­i­dency of the Gen­eral As­sem­bly, Thom­son, who is also an Aus­tralian cit­i­zen, is the sec­ond Aus­tralian to hold the role af­ter for­mer leader of the La­bor Party Her­bert Vere Evatt in 1948.

On cli­mate change, Fiji and the US are poles apart. Un­der Prime Min­is­ter Frank Bain­i­marama, Fiji has taken a lead­ing role on cli­mate change at the

UN. It was the first coun­try to sign the Paris agree­ment in Fe­bru­ary 2016 and in Novem­ber will host the yearly UN Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence, re­motely, from Bonn, Ger­many.

By con­trast, the US is push­ing ahead with its in­ten­tion to with­draw from the Paris agree­ment un­less “the United States can iden­tify terms that are more favourable to it, its busi­nesses, its work­ers, its peo­ple and its tax­pay­ers”.

The planned with­drawal of the US, the big­gest car­bon emit­ter in his­tory, is just the lat­est in a long se­ries of de­lays in in­ter­na­tional cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions. Many al­ready be­lieve the Paris deal is not am­bi­tious enough and is sim­ply a start­ing point for long over­due in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion. Thom­son re­mains op­ti­mistic, point­ing to re­cent in­no­va­tions and re­newed com­mit­ments from Amer­i­can cities. “Peo­ple re­alise that this is an ex­is­ten­tial is­sue, not just for Pa­cific Is­land coun­tries or river delta sit­u­a­tions but for ev­ery­body.”

Yet it is oceans where Thom­son seems to have found his purpose for the lat­ter part of his pres­i­dency, and the com­ing years, af­ter a High-Level Sum­mit on Refugees and Mi­grants at the be­gin­ning of his pres­i­dency failed to gain trac­tion. In July, Fiji co-hosted a UN con­fer­ence on oceans with Swe­den, al­though dam­age from cy­clone Win­ston meant the con­fer­ence was re­lo­cated from Fiji to New York, a re­minder of grow­ing cli­mate-re­lated threats. The meet­ing aimed to ad­dress prob­lems such as plas­tics grad­u­ally out­weigh­ing fish in the oceans.

The dis­tant de­scen­dent of a mas­ter mariner, Thom­son says the oceans have been in his blood since his mother sailed from Fiji’s sec­ond-largest is­land, Vanua Levu, to its largest is­land, Viti Levu, to give birth to him. “As soon as she was ready we got back into the tiny lit­tle boat and spent three days sail­ing back up to Labasa.”

His is­land up­bring­ing also means that he “feels for Aus­tralians about what’s hap­pen­ing in the Great Bar­rier Reef”. If you’re brought up in the is­lands “you know what a pris­tine coral reef used to look like and … you know what a dead reef looks like and how dev­as­tat­ing that is … It’s like see­ing the beauty of a trop­i­cal rain­for­est turn to a desert.”

Thom­son also fears other con­se­quences of warm­ing oceans, in­clud­ing the mass mi­gra­tion of life to more tem­per­ate zones. Not just fish, he adds, but also mi­cro fauna, “the fun­da­men­tals of life”. Peo­ple will fol­low, he says, mi­grat­ing to cities such as Syd­ney and Mel­bourne.

By the time he was se­lected to be Fiji’s UN rep­re­sen­ta­tive in 2010, Thom­son was an au­thor liv­ing in ex­ile on Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches. It was a long way from the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, work­ing for the Fi­jian gov­ern­ment, dig­ging pit la­trines and build­ing sea­walls, af­ter un­der­tak­ing de­vel­op­ment stud­ies at Cam­bridge.

His first book, Kava in the Blood, won New Zealand’s E. H. McCormick Award for Best First Book of Non­fic­tion. It de­tails how Thom­son – the son of the for­mer Bri­tish colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tor of Fiji – found him­self sud­denly out of favour back home. Stripped of his Fi­jian cit­i­zen­ship, he be­came both an Aus­tralian and New Zealand na­tional.

Yet af­ter the 2006 coup, Thom­son’s luck changed. A change in Fi­jian dual cit­i­zen­ship laws al­lowed Thom­son to re­gain his Fi­jian pass­port, and so re­in­stated he was plucked by the Bain­i­marama gov­ern­ment to rep­re­sent the coun­try at the United Na­tions.

From there, Thom­son fol­lowed a some­what text­book path to the pres­i­dency, with roles in­clud­ing chair­man of the Group of 77, which rep­re­sents

134 de­vel­op­ing coun­tries at the UN. He also ne­go­ti­ated a change of name of the Asian Group at the UN to the Asia-Pa­cific Group. Both were some­what un­usual roles for the white son of a for­mer colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tor.

In many ways, Thom­son has con­tin­ued the man­tle of his pre­de­ces­sor, Dan­ish politi­cian Mo­gens Lykketoft. Lykketoft’s pres­i­dency also in­cluded a rush to re­store the name of the of­fice af­ter a cor­rup­tion scan­dal en­gulfed

68th pres­i­dent, John Ashe of An­tigua and Bar­buda. Ashe died of trau­matic as­phyx­i­a­tion in June 2016 in an ap­par­ent weight-lift­ing ac­ci­dent days be­fore he was due to ap­pear in court on charges of bribery and cor­rup­tion, re­lated to his pres­i­dency.

Scan­dals aside, Thom­son spends much of his time mak­ing dry speeches about the UN’s Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals. He con­cedes that two years in, the goals are still not widely recog­nised.

At din­ner par­ties with friends from Aus­tralia and New Zealand he says he is of­ten met with con­fu­sion when he men­tions the goals, known by their ini­tial­ism. “What are the SDGs – sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases?”

The goals cover ev­ery­thing from gen­der in­equal­ity to sus­tain­able con­sump­tion, a favourite topic of Thom­son’s, who says he and his wife try to do their bit.

“Ev­ery­body is get­ting so self­ish. I don’t know if it’s mount­ing fear or what they see on the in­ter­net and the be­hav­iour of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. It’s just like, jet­ti­son your prin­ci­ples, look af­ter your­self and get ready, I sup­pose, for what­ever is com­ing.”

LYN­DAL ROW­LANDS is an Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist and United Na­tions cor­re­spon­dent.

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