Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:43 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:43 | SYDNEY

Fiji impasse continues


Jenny Hayward-Jones


12 December 2008 14:33

The Pacific Islands Forum’s Ministerial Contact Group was back in Suva this week to assess Fiji’s progress towards returning to democracy by March 2009. Unsurprisingly, interim Government leader Commodore Bainimarama told the group (foreign ministers from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu) that Fiji 'cannot and will not proceed to convene an election under the current rules.'

The Ministers expressed disappointment. Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith warned of consequences, including suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, as was mooted in the Niue Forum Communiqué, but also indicated that political dialogue was important and that the Forum wanted to 'continue to work with Fiji to return Fiji to democracy.'

Stephen Smith previously hinted that Fiji’s membership of the Commonwealth could be in doubt. Fiji has been suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth since the December 2006 coup and endured a ten year exclusion after the October 1987 coup, so is unlikely to be troubled by the prospect of a more complete suspension.

Suspension or even expulsion from the Pacific Islands Forum is more complex. Fiji has been a key member of the Forum since its inception in 1971. Fiji provides a home and staff to seven of the eleven organisations under the umbrella of the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific, including the Secretariat of the Forum itself. The Forum has never before suspended or expelled a member. If Fiji were to be suspended, it would be relatively easy for an annoyed interim Government to disrupt the Secretariat and threaten the work of the Forum itself.

It is difficult to see how the Forum and the Commonwealth could achieve the objective of punishing the interim Government by breaking relations with Fiji while continuing to support political dialogue and preparations for elections, which are dependent on the leadership of Bainimarama. 

Suspension or expulsion are likely to rupture the dialogue that both the Forum (through the Pacific Islands Forum-Fiji Working Group) and the Commonwealth (potentially through support for the President’s Political Dialogue Forum) have with Fiji. The move would also alienate Bainimarama further, make him less likely to engage with the region, and possibly less interested in eventually holding elections or seeking outside assistance with political dialogue.

Having threatened to suspend Fiji, Forum Leaders will need to pull the proverbial rabbit from their hat to ensure the Forum does not lose credibility by not following through with the threat or, if they vote for suspension, to ensure that the Forum can remain engaged enough to influence political dialogue within Fiji. 

The leaders are due to meet in Papua New Guinea in January to discuss the report of the Ministerial Contact Group and their options, consistent with the Biketawa Declaration (the Forum’s framework for coordinating their response to a crisis in the region). To be truly consistent with Paragraph 3 of the Declaration, they will need to invite the Commodore to join them – and hope he comes with good intentions.