Once again the Commonwealth has demonstrated it is an international organisation with high standards. Fiji will be suspended from the Commonwealth on 1 September if it does not guarantee to hold democratic elections next year ( The Australian 1/8).
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), including New Zealand's Murray McCully, issued the ultimatum at a meeting in London. The Malaysian foreign minister Datuk Anifah Aman spoke on behalf of the ministers.
He said that if the secretary-general had not received a positive response by 1 September, Fiji will “ be suspended - fully suspended." The ministers had warned Fiji four months ago that it would be suspended unless it made progress towards restoring democracy.
But since then, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has said he will not hold elections until 2014. In the meantime Fiji continues to play an important role in various international peacekeeping operations. Australian threats to move to block these are disproportionate and would prove counterproductive.
[ A Fijian soldier serving with a Black Watch battalion in Iraq ]
The ministers met for over eight hours, the longest the CMAG has ever taken to reach a decision. This suggests the ministers are divided.
A Foreign Ministry statement said the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama had emphasised that suspension of Fiji, as suggested by some member states, would not be beneficial to its people and would not be helpful in pressuring the military government.
“Referring to Sri Lanka’s policy as outlined by the President in international fora that Sri Lanka is against imposition of economic or other sanctions on countries as such conditions would create immense difficulties to the innocent people.”
Mr. Bogollagama had argued that it is the duty of the Commonwealth to continue its dialogue with the interim government of Fiji and pursue democratic reforms in that country.
... a mediation rather than suspension?
Mr. Bogollagama’s approach is to be desired. While regimes such as Zimbabwe’s deserve harsh sanctions, the Commonwealth should try to reacha mediated compromise solution with Fiji.
In an interview with Graham Davis in The Australian on 1 May, 2009, Commodore Bainimarama had warned that an election this year on the present rolls would restore the "racist" government of former prime minister Laisenia Qarase, whom he deposed in 2006. He said he was fighting racists who discriminated against Fijian Indians. ( A video of that interview is embedded in three parts below on the ACM site)
“We need to get rid of racism in the next five years and then have elections that people recognise will bring about true democracy in Fiji," he said. He expressed frustration at the lack of understanding of Fiji’s situation by the Australian and New Zealand governments.
It is not our intention to approve what has been done in Fiji. But Australian foreign policy should abandon futile "megaphone diplomacy" which is no more than spin designed to obtain headlines. It should stop imposing sanctions which only hurt the weak.
Rather we should be using our influence and our good offices to find a solution. After all, we are imposing no sanctions on the Middle Kingdom, and nor should we.
...return to democracy with the restoration of The Queen?...
Commodore Bainimarama said that when democracy was eventually restored in five years, Fiji would like to ask the Queen to resume her position as Queen of Fiji. (See video 1 below, about 2 minutes in.) Fijian was declared a republic during the first coup in 1987, but as Her Majesty observed, this was done without reference to the Fijian people.
Her Majesty had said she was "sad to think that the ending of the Fijian allegiance to the Crown should have been brought about without the people of Fiji being given an opportunity to express their opinion on the proposal."
Her Majesty's statement was unusual. She spoke as The Queen of Fiji, and without the advice of Her Ministers, there being none. This statement implies that at some stage the people of Fiji will have to decide on the status of the Crown. An intensely loyal people, there is no doubt that in a free vote, the monarchy would be restored.
"I'm still loyal to the Queen - many people in Fiji are," he told Graham Davis, acknowledging The Queen’s photograph above his desk. "One of the things I'd like to do is see her become Queen of Fiji again."
One thing is clear. The Queen would only return if Her Fijian Realm were to be governed along sound democratic principles.
...Australia should be more restrained...
Not everyone agreed with the Australian government’s hard line against Fiji earlier this year. In this column ( 12/5) we previoulsy criticised successive Australian government for their often futile and embarrassing “megaphone diplomacy”in relation to smaller Pacific Island states .
Australia would not do this with large powers; it should treat smaller countries in the same way.
Reservations are being expressed in Australia about the hard line adopted by the government. The Australian has editorialised (1/5) against isolating Fiji.
Anthony Bergin, author of “Democracy Postponed: Fiji and Australian Policy Choices,” and director of research programs at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, has argued (8/5) in the same newspaper that Australia's “sticks and no carrots” line since December 2006 hasn't worked.
Fiji, he said, won't bow to external pressures such as travel bans or Australia's “mean-spirited” decision to cut Fiji from our Pacific agricultural guest-worker scheme. He said ejecting Fiji from the forum extends our “failed approach”.
And blocking Fiji from contributing to UN international peacekeeping missions will result in unemployed Fiji military personnel with guns roaming the streets at home.
He said it was critical there be a compromise that embodies “the key change of open electorates and no affirmative action quotas while further constitutional reform is pursued.”He argued for the appointment of an outside mediator, but in a process without Australian or New Zealand involvement – they have ruled themselves out, he said.
Given Commodore Bainimarama’s and most Fijian’s loyalty to The Queen, he suggested a member of the Royal Family as mediator with Foreign and Commonwealth Office support. It was once common for Kings and Queens, members of Royal Families and The Pope to be appointed arbitrators in disputes between countries.
In more recent times the actual arbitration would be undertaken by leading jurists who would then give their advice.
“Prince Andrew, for example, has had a career as a naval officer and may have some rapport with Bainimarama, who was the former chief of Fiji's navy. Another possibility as a third-party mediator is an emissary of Barack Obama. Bill Clinton would be a stand-out choice.
”The chances of success are slim. But absent a mediation, he says everyone in Fiji “stews and suffers.”
“More pressure from Australia even may lead to financial collapse or a rival army faction moving in,” he warnsed.
He concludes “ We don't want any possibility to arise of direct intervention such as the 5 1/2-year regional assistance mission to Solomon Islands that has already cost Australia more than $1 billion.”
There is still scope for mediation and for a compromise.