Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:15 | SYDNEY
Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:15 | SYDNEY

Fiji: The limits of sanctions


Jenny Hayward-Jones


23 December 2008 08:43

The vexed question of what to do about Fiji is likely to be a high priority for policy makers in Canberra, Wellington, and Pacific Island capitals when they return from a brief Christmas break. Pacific Islands Forum leaders are due to meet in Port Moresby on 27 January to discuss their next move in relation to Fiji.

This piece by Anthony Bergin in The Australian of 20 December proffered some suggestions for changes in Australian policy towards Fiji. Although I agree with him for the most part, I suspect Anthony’s proposals will be anathema to the Australian Government. In an environment where Commodore Bainimarama has become increasingly authoritarian, Canberra will be in no mood to offer rewards to his interim government. 

Anthony suggests relaxing the wider travel bans as a gesture of goodwill, maintaining bans only on Bainimarama’s closest associates. The ANU’s Jon Fraenkel has also suggested softening the travel bans because they have only helped entrench the interim government. I concur with both of them, but realistically, neither the Australian nor New Zealand Governments can announce they will drop the travel bans now. 

The travel bans were applied when Canberra and Wellington had to demonstrate official disapproval of the 2006 coup. The Howard Government terminated defence cooperation with Fiji and pared back the aid program a little. Other options, such as terminating the aid program and imposing trade sanctions, would have punished ordinary people in Fiji and hurt Australian businesses. At the time, the limited travel bans were a reasonable and low cost response to an illegal coup, even if their impact two years down the track has not been helpful. 

The Rudd Government’s capacity to remove the travel bans, even if disposed to do so, has been constrained by its interest in acting in concert with New Zealand. Helen Clark was a strong proponent of travel bans and undoubtedly would have encouraged Rudd to continue the Howard Government’s policy. It has been vital for the region’s unity that its two major powers are aligned, and the interim government in Fiji would relish any breach of solidarity between Australia and New Zealand.

John Key’s new government in Wellington could have considered talking to Canberra about jointly relaxing travel bans had it not been hit with a diplomatic crisis in its first weeks of office. The interim government in Fiji has only just backed away from a threat it made last week to expel New Zealand’s Acting High Commissioner Caroline McDonald if Wellington did not grant a study visa to the son of the official secretary to the Fiji President. 

Any change to New Zealand policy now would be seen by New Zealand voters as capitulation to blackmail, and portrayed by the interim government in Suva as a victory of the Commodore’s perverse diplomacy. Stephen Smith has backed New Zealand’s travel bans policy and reiterated his belief that travel bans are 'very effective devices in putting pressure on the interim Fiji government to return and restore Fiji to democracy.'

While no public carrot can be offered in relation to the travel bans, Canberra and Wellington could, internally and without any fanfare, determine to take a more generous approach to the application of the travel bans to relatives of interim government officials. 

I understand there is no publicly available list of banned individuals and each application is considered on its merits. The rather opaque nature of decision-making processes in Australian immigration, the large number of applications (over 22,000 Fiji temporary visitor arrivals in Australia were recorded in 2007-08) and the interim government’s limited resources will make it difficult for it to track any trends towards greater leniency. Fewer visa refusals would give Bainimarama fewer excuses to claim Fiji was being victimised, without being able to claim victory from a public sign of retreat by Australia and New Zealand.

I am increasingly unconvinced that Australia, or for that matter, any external power, has the capacity to influence developments in Fiji. It is easy to say that Australian and regional policy towards Fiji has failed, but this focus on the inadequacy of foreign policy tools diverts attention from the real failure – that of Fiji’s interim government to address the needs of the Fiji population. Regional policy makers might refocus on what needs to happen within Fiji over the next year to generate a democracy that works for Fiji rather than toying with radical realignments to the policies of regional capitals.