During his tenure as a diplomat and Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Urwin was considered to be instrumental in the rebuilding of failed states and promotion of political stability in the region - especially with the RAMSI mission in the Solomon Islands.
Greg Urwin was born on 21 August 1946, in Lithgow, New South Wales, Australia, to parents Frank and Verna Urwin. The family relocated to the Wollongong area and then to Oak Flats when Urwin was ten years old. Urwin initially attended elementary school at Fairy Meadow Public School. Urwin then attended Wollongong High School where he became school captain.
Urwin completed undergraduate studies in history with honours at the University of Sydney where he was also senior student at Wesley College.
Urwin entered the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or DFAT, in 1971 following his graduation from the University of Sydney. His first diplomatic posting for DFAT was 1971–1974 to the Australian embassy in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.
Urwin's work as a Pacific region specialist began in 1977 when he was posted to Apia, Samoa from Canberra, to open Australia's first diplomatic mission in the Polynesian nation. Urwin was seconded to Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Samoa in 1979. In this capacity, Urwin assisted Samoa in developing its international foreign policy.
Urwin's later Pacific diplomatic assignments included serving as Australian High Commissioner in Fiji and Vanuatu and the deputy head of the Australian mission in New Zealand. Through his diplomatic postings in large nations, Urwin was often accredited to smaller Pacific island states as well.
Urwin's first marriage to Louise Dauth ended while he was Apia. He married his second wife, Penny Clark, a Samoan widow with three sons.
Urwin often returned to Canberra, Australia, between diplomatic postings, where he often served as a special envoy for the government or as an international election observer. Despite his overseas positions, Urwin remained active and in tune to Australian domestic politics.
Urwin was part of the Australian delegation to the 2000 Pacific Islands Forum summit in Kiribati. Urwin was considered to be a very important drafter of the Biketawa Declaration, which was signed at the Kiribati summit. The Biketawa Declaration, named after the island of Biketawa where negotiations took place, provided a firm political framework for regional cooperation on Pacific island security for the first time. The Declaration established a mechanism by which Forum countries could come to the assistance of its members. The Biketawa Declaration came against a backdrop of increased political instability throughout Melanesia at the time. George Speight had recently staged the 2000 Fijian coup d'état during the same year and the Solomon Islands were nearly brought to civil war due to ethnic tensions on the island of Guadalcanal.
Urwin was considered to be an instrumental voice in the application of the Biketawa Declaration to the Solomons Island Crisis. Urwin applied the declaration to the crisis and gathered regional support for the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI, which was sent to the Solomon Islands in 2003 to help quell the ethnic violence and remains to this day. RAMSI stabilised the nation and allowed the government of the Solomon Islands to rebuild its administration and the economy.
Urwin's skill as a diplomat and his handling of the Solomon Islands tension earned him a reputation of having an awareness of the sensibilities of Pacific Island leaders and local culture.
In 2004, Australian Prime Minister John Howard backed Urwin as a candidate for Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. Leaders of some neighbouring island states, notably Papua New Guinea, opposed Urwin's nomination, not because they disliked Urwin, but because they feared perceived Australian political domination of the Forum and the region at large, especially by Howard, whom they viewed as heavy-handed. Some Pacific Island nations said that they would prefer someone of Pacific Islander descent. Ultimately though Urwin won the nomination.
Urwin competed against three other candidates, all Pacific Islanders, whose nominations were also put forth for Secretary General – lawyer Tuala Donald Kerslake of Samoa; Vinci Clodumar of Nauru, the country's permanent representative to the United Nations; and Langi Kavaliku a doctor from Tonga. Ultimately, despite some opposition, Urwin prevailed and became the first Australian Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2004.
As Secretary General, Urwin played a central role in the adoption of the Pacific Plan at the Pacific Islands Forum summit in Port Moresby in October 2005. The Pacific Plan is a "co-operation scheme" which is based on four "pillars" to promote regional cooperation and integration in Pacific Island nations: economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security. Urwin also worked to promote dialogue between the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional activists and organisations. In 2007, the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum voted to give non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, a "consultative relationship" with their annual summits and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
Urwin was unanamously reappointed to a second three-year term as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum in October 2006. Unlike his first nomination, Urwin ran unopposed.
Greg Urwin resigned as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2008 due to cancer. Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele, who was serving as Chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum at the time, announced that he received Urwin's letter of resignation on 2 May 2008 saying, "We all wish him well and a speedy recovery." Deputy Secretary General Feleti Teo of Tuvalu became acting Secretary General following Urwin's resignation.
Ultimately, Tuiloma Neroni Slade of Samoa, a former justice at the International Criminal Court, was chosen to permanently succeed Urwin at the 39th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders conference in Alofi, Niue, in August 2008.
In 2001, Urwin was awarded the Australian Public Service Medal for "Outstanding Contribution to the Development of Australia's Relationship with the Pacific." He was awarded the Centenary Medal for "outstanding public service" in advancing Australia's position in the Pacific.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Derek Sikua posthumously awarded Urwin the Cross of Solomon Islands "in recognition of his outstanding contribution to RAMSI." The Cross of Solomon Islands is the highest civilian award given in the Solomon Islands and the country's second highest award overall. Sikua will present the award to Urwin's widow in a future ceremony.
Urwin returned from Suva, Fiji, to his home in Apia just two weeks before his death. He died of cancer in Apia, Samoa, on 9 August 2008, at the age of 61. He had been suffering from cancer and heart problems for the previous eight months. Urwin is survived by his second wife, Penny and their three sons, Wylie, Geoff and Daryl; his parents, Frank and Verna, of Queanbeyan, Australia; and his brother, Neil, of Murrumbateman.
Urwin was buried at the Keil Family grounds in Lotopa, Samoa, on 14 August 2008.
Memorial services were held in Apia, Samoa; Suva, Fiji and Canberra, Australia at which many leaders from the region were in attendance.
Tuiloma Neroni Slade, who ascended to Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum in August 2008, promised to continue the work of Urwin following his death.
Reactions to Urwin's death poured in from across the Pacific region where he had worked as a diplomat for more than 30 years.
Pacific Islands Forum – Acting Secretary General Feleti Teo, who succeeded Urwin in May 2008, praised Urwin as the "architect of the Pacific Plan." Teo described Urwin as "a very humble person and very sensitive to many cultures that make up the membership of the Pacific Islands Forum family."
French Polynesia – President Gaston Tong Sang called Urwin's death an "immense loss" and praised him for granting French Polynesia and New Caledonia associate member status during his time as Secretary General. Sang said, "French Polynesia does not forget either that it is also under Greg Urwin's mandate and under his determining impetus, that the Forum has opened up to the French Pacific entities by granting them the associate member status (for New Caledonia and French Polynesia) and the observer status for Wallis and Futuna."
New Zealand – Prime Minister Helen Clark said of Urwin, "The South Pacific was where Greg made his home. His enthusiasm and love of our region was very evident in the way he went about his work. Greg was a strong advocate for the Pacific and his passing is a great loss."
Papua New Guinea – Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare sent condolences to Urwin's wife, Penny Urwin. Somare called Urwin "A man of the Pacific, from the Pacific and for the Pacific," who legacy of strengthened Pacific cooperation.
Solomon Islands – Prime Minister Derek Sikua called Urwin's death a great loss to the region and the Pacific Islands Forum. He commended Urwin for his work on the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands and his understanding of the Pacific Islands region.
Tonga – Prime Minister Feleti Sevele called Urwin a "real son of the Pacific" and praised his work on the Pacific Plan.Smith, Stephen (11 August 2008), Mr Greg Urwin PSM, archived from the original on 15 March 2014
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