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OCO CONFERENCE OPENS WITH CALL FOR REGIONAL COLLABORATION

fili@samoanews.com
Students from the American Samoa Community College perform the welcoming ava ceremony for the opening of the 14th Oceania Customs Organization (OCO) conference at the ASG traditional Samoan guest house, Faletele, at Suigaula o le Atuvasa at Utulei Beach Park. The rest of the OCO conference, hosted for the first time by American Samoa, is being held this week at the Gov. H. Rex Lee Auditorium. [photo: FS]

With the Oceania region faced with geographic isolation and other challenges, acting governor Faoa Aitofele Sunia has called on member countries and territories of the Oceania Customs Organizations (OCO) to work collaboratively in a way that will be beneficial to OCO members.

Faoa made the comments at yesterday’s opening of the 14th OCO conference, which is being hosted by American Samoa for the first time. The conference opened with an ava ceremony provided by a group from the American Samoa Community College in the ASG traditional Samoan fale, Faletele, at the Suigaula o le Atuvasa at Utulei Beach Park.

In his address, Faoa said the days when Customs’ primary role was to collect import duties are long gone and today’s Customs agency ensures the smooth flow of legitimate trade while protecting citizens from risks posed by international trade, fraud, terrorism, organized crime, and intellectual property right (IPR) infringements.

“Suppressing the illegal movement of goods contributes to the healthy functioning of the global economy and to our citizens’ welfare,” he said and pointed out that regional cooperation is of utmost importance to the Oceania region as the Pacific has its own challenges.

 He says most Pacific Island countries and territories suffer from geographic isolation, small populations and markets that limit economies of scale, and vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. Human and institutional capacity constraints limit our ability to respond to the increasingly complex business of government and meet essential sovereign functions, he said.

“In that context, regional collaboration – such as those spearheaded by OCO – plays an important role in supporting our member governments to meet these complex demands,” Faoa noted. “It is only through regional cooperation and economic integration that we can remain buoyant and competitive.”

“There is no doubt that the resource constrained smaller members need a greater level of support from their more developed colleagues.  More emphasis should continue to be placed on improving their capacities in the true spirit of brotherhood,” he said.

“More than ever, the OCO Customs administrations must think strategically in order to connect our mission to the economic development objectives of our countries,” he continued. “We must remain vigilant of the emerging issues which impact our economies, and stand steadfast to our resolve to improve the well-being and socio economic prosperity of the Pacific Islanders.”

“No state is an island; Cooperation, communication, coordination and collaboration are needed to ensure continuous connectivity between Customs and its international, regional and national partners,” he added.

According to Faoa, Customs remains the primary revenue collector in many developing countries, meaning that reform and modernization of this institution is critical to improving the fiscal situation found in many least-developed economies.

Additionally, Customs is the source of extremely important trade data upon which many economic policies are based.

Faoa told the gathering that Customs must maintain a level-playing field for all traders by ensuring openness and fairness.

“It has an extremely important role to play in protecting society from prohibited and unsafe goods, detecting the minority of unscrupulous traders and persons carrying drugs, weapons, and other contraband, while facilitating trade for the vast majority of compliant traders and travelers,” he said. “These are amongst the many challenges and demands confronting the contemporary Customs administrations.”

During the OCO conference which runs through May 3rd, Faoa said there are several important matters for consideration, including the proposed new governance structure for the OCO.

“This is a turning point for the organization and any decision reached will have far reaching ramifications in terms of setting a new direction and vision for the members. We cannot afford to remain complacent as change is inevitable,” he said.

“However, in the final analysis, whatever is agreed upon should take into account the long term interest, goal and benefit of the members,” he noted.  “I urge you all to approach the key issues on the agenda with an open mind and adopt a consensus building approach when engaging in the deliberations culminating in passing pragmatic resolutions for the betterment of the members.”

Prior to Faoa’s address, Rev. Kimo Esekia, who is also an instructor at the Kanana Fou Seminary, provided both the invocation as well as spiritual words for the gathering. Esekia also called on the delegates to work together for the benefit of their member countries and territories.

While not fully versed in the issues and matters surrounding the OCO conference, Esekia told the gathering that “in any social or political gathering those appointed as leaders or representatives are held accountable for their decision making.”

“For you are responsible for the good of the community, people and country. This goodness can only be realized with fair treatment of each island nation, of each member, which then leads to equality of all people, not just a minority,” he said.

“And here lies your responsibility as a member —for the people of each island nation and to the whole world. And with responsibility comes commitment,” he said. “Crucial to all this is a positive outcome, benefiting all people.”

Following the opening at the Faletele, the more than 30-members attending the conference went to the Governor H. Rex Lee Auditorium, which is the OCO conference venue for the week.  At the start of the conference, American Samoa’s chief customs officer Glenn Lefiti became the new OCO chairman, replacing outgoing chairman Ray Paul, the Customs commissioner for Papua New Guinea.

According to the OCO website, the organization brings together twenty-three Customs administrations of Oceania (Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia). The OCO was previously known as the Customs Heads of Administration Regional Meeting (CHARM), which met in a different Member country each year since it first convened in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, in 1986.

OCO meetings provide a forum for promoting harmonized and simplified customs procedures, introducing new methods, exchanging information and generally improving communication between Member administrations.



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