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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fiji needs its freedom restored


By Kevin Rudd

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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It was with a sense of dismay that Pacific Island Forum leaders agreed in January in Port Moresby that unless Fiji military leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama set a date for elections in 2009 by May 1, his government must be suspended from participating inForum meetings and events, and lose access to Forum financial and technical assistance.

These measures went into effect May 2. In its 38-year history, the Forum has never before had to take such action.

As our senior statesman, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Thomas Somare, said last month, regional countries have all bent over backwards to encourage Commodore Bainimarama to do the right thing and restore Fiji to democracy.

It is not the Forum that has walked away from Fiji; sadly, it has been Commodore Bainimarama who walked away from us. He has not attended the last two Forum leaders' meetings. The Forum's Ministerial Contact Group has visited Fiji twice, but Commodore Bainimarama declined to engage constructively with it. The officials-level Fiji/Forum Joint Working Group remains in existence but Fiji has stopped attending its meetings.

The countries of the Forum are by no means alone in our dismay. The United Nations' Security Council has unanimously condemned recent developments in Fiji. The Commonwealth will soon consider the full suspension of Fiji. The United States is limiting links with the Fijian military. TWith others in the international community, the European Union is also taking a firm stance.

The damage which CommodoreBainimarama has done to Fiji's international standing, and to the international reputation of Fiji's military, is bad enough. But the real tragedy is what is occurring on the ground to the good and proud people of Fiji. Rather than fulfill his promise to hold elections by March 2009 and restore the voice of the citizens of Fiji, on April 10 Commodore Bainimarama cast aside Fiji's constitution. He has since moved to sack the judiciary, censor the media, prohibit free assembly and step up intimidation of the Fijian people. All the normal checks and balances on government have now been eliminated.

The political crackdown is compounded by the incalculable damage Commodore Bainimarama is doing to Fiji's economy, which has left it much more vulnerable to the current global economic crisis. Poverty has never been higher, and by some estimates as much as 40 percent of the population may now live in basic-needs poverty. That hurts women and children especially.

Commodore Bainimarama is ignoring the major political parties in Fiji, all of which support a prompt return to democracy. Having broken his pledge to hold elections, he is now publicly saying that elections won't be held until 2014. Privately, he is telling his military it may take up to 10 years. This is the behavior of a military junta.

The people and their representatives must be part of the process of governing Fiji. We don't think genuine reform can be achieved through threats and force. We don't think the rule of law can be strengthened by breaking the law. We don't think accountability can be strengthened by arbitrary rule. But we do think that the longer elections are delayed in Fiji, the worse Fiji's problems will get.

Do we oppose reforms in Fiji, including electoral reform? Not as a matter of principle, but in the end that is a matter for the people of Fiji themselves. Unfortunately, at the present time the people of Fiji are unable to express their views freely either through elected representatives or in the media. There is no credibility to the interim government's claim that, of those people who were consulted about the People's Charter, more than 92 percent approved of it. In any event, it is absurd to suggest that up to five more years are needed to prepare for elections.

Electoral reform was on the agenda of Fiji's political dialogue process, a process which was cut short on April 9. Until that time, Australia had been observing the dialogue with some interest and a sense of guarded optimism. We were preparing to provide financial support to the process. Unfortunately, Commodore Bainimarama wanted to hand-pick those who were to participate, and to exclude some of Fiji's biggest political parties. This is not a viable basis for genuine dialogue and Commodore Bainimarama must bear personal responsibility for the failure of this process.

Australia will continue to seek constructive ways of helping the people of Fiji, and helping Fiji itself return to democracy. We will continue our targeted sanctions against regime leaders and supporters while maintaining significant support to the people of Fiji, including in the areas of health, education and humanitarian relief. For instance, Australia responded promptly to the floods in January by providing $3 million (Australian) in aid. Australia also stands ready to provide significant economic assistance to Fiji to assist it through its current economic problems, provided there is a restoration of democracy. This would include support for elections and would also extend well beyond this, to help rebuild Fiji's broken economy.

When Forum Leaders assemble in Cairns in August this year for our annual gathering, Fiji's absence will be something we all feel keenly, and indeed regret. But it will also be a sign of our region's commitment to the core values of democracy, respect for the rule of law and for human rights.

Does the Forum's door remain open? I hope so. Forum leaders have made a point of suspending Fiji's interim government, not Fiji itself, from the Forum. This is an important distinction that underlines our respect for a founding member of the Forum, and also our hope that Fiji can quickly return to its place as a leader of our region. But the onus now is on Commodore Bainimarama to do the right thing. He knows what he must do.