Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fiji Seminar - Victoria University, Wellington


Global Watch

Fiji: Pleas for fresh dialogue between NZ and post-coup regime, 12 June 2007

By Bharat Jamnadas

Photo: Asia-Pacific Network

Photo: Asia-Pacific Network

A seminar about post-coup Fiji held at Victoria University in Wellington has called on the New Zealand government to initiate more dialogue with the interim government of Fiji.

Vince McBride, executive director of the Wellington-based Pacific Cooperation Foundation (PCF), which facilitated the seminar, said it was “time for a cup of tea”.

The main speakers at last Friday’s seminar, “Fiji at the Crossroads – Again?”, were two academics from the University of the South Pacific, Dr Steven Ratuva and Professor Biman Prasad, Wellington lawyer Janet Mason, from Pacific Law, and Rae Julian, executive director of the Council of International Development, also based in Wellington.

McBride said the main thrust of the seminar was that the New Zealand government should ease up a little and “engage” with Fiji.

Relations between the two countries had soared since the coup last December 5, which saw the Commander of the Fiji Military Forces, Commander Voreqe Bainimarama seizing power and ousting the democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

Among sanctions imposed by the New Zealand government was suspension of selected aid projects, a travel ban on all the members of the military and the Fiji interim government and their families and imposition of a strict travel advisory.

McBride said views were expressed that it was important to get the Fiji economy “back on the feet”. Without the economy improving in Fiji the country will not achieve positive development.

Poverty alleviation was important for an improvement for Fiji society.

He said the seminar considered that the New Zealand government’s travel advisory should be toned down.

Declining tourism

Tourism brought much needed revenue for the country that in recent years has seen the decline in revenue from other traditional sources such as sugar and the garments industry.

The travel advisory was toned down to some extent after the interim government withdrew the emergency regulations with effect from May 31.

A spokesperson for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, responded by saying New Zealand had indicated that actions taken against Fiji since the coup was done with “great regret”.

He said relations with Fiji could not continue to the pre coup level unless the Interim Government took “concrete steps” to return Fiji to democratic rule as specified by the Pacific Islands Forum-Fiji Joint Working Group.

The working group undertook an independent assessment of the electoral process in Fiji to determine the minimum reasonable time required “to prepare for and conduct the next parliamentary elections” in Fiji in a manner which was free, fair and credible.

The members of the team appointed in May were electoral expert Dr Paul Harris, of New Zealand, lawyer Barrie Sweetman and Dr Kesaia Seniloli of Fiji and Bruce Hatch of Canada.

Their report released last week stated that the country could be ready for elections by November 2008 or the latest by the first quarter of 2009.

The spokesperson said “better” relations with Fiji would depend on the interim government’s response to the report.

Electoral boundaries

The report has suggested that before the elections there should be a redistribution of constituency boundaries following the 2007 census, an update of the registration of voters, and voter education and information programmes. It recommended international technical assistance to enable such a programme to take place.

Janet Mason said the working group’s assessment had given the interim government a detailed timetable to return to democratic rule, under the provisions of the present constitution. She said the present situation in Fiji was not good and before Fiji and New Zealand re-enter negotiations there was a need to look at some of the fundamental issues of concern in Fiji.

Apart from returning to democracy, there was a need to uphold the rule of law and basic human rights.

Some of these rights have eroded over the months since the coup. Many lawyers, journalists and academics have been subjected to harassment by the military.

They have been taken to the barracks for questioning and reportedly intimidated and assaulted.

Mason herself while in Fiji recently to advise the Great Council of Chiefs was robbed. She and her husband were also reportedly assaulted during the robbery.

She agreed that the situation in Fiji could worsen if the economy collapsed and that there was a dire need for more dialogue between not only Fiji and New Zealand but also involving other countries.

Nikhil Naidu, from the Auckland based Coalition for Democracy in Fiji, said sanctions against Fiji were hurting in a big way.

He said such sanctions hurt the ordinary people the most. There were many more people in Fiji living below the poverty line now than prior to the coup. He said as much as 80 per cent of the population could be struggling, given the decline in the sugar industry, the collapse of the garments industry and expiry of land leases.

Large numbers of unemployed people were living across the country.

Risk to economy

Naidu said the worst case scenario was seeing the economy collapse, bringing down with it the interim government and then there would be chaos.

The key to the interim government’s survival was the performance of the economy and returning the country to democratic Government by holding general elections.

He said dialogue was needed between Fiji and New Zealand and also between the different groups in Fiji.

There were major issues concerning the judiciary, unemployment, law and order, inter-ethnic relations and breaches in human rights since the coup.

Naidu said the voices of the ordinary people in Fiji need to be heard. The interim government needed to engage with the wider community in a genuine manner, represented by the key parties in civil society and the private sector.

The commander also needed to engage with his opponents.

He said the working group’s path to democratic rule was achievable. Fiji’s interim government need to heed proposals put forward by the group and proceed with census preparation as soon as possible.

Naidu said he had no doubt that the New Zealand government would come to the party and provide the technical assistance the interim government needed and restore bilateral relations between the two countries.

Bharat Jamnadas is a Masters student on AUT’s Asia-Pacific Journalism paper and a senior reporter with Asia Down Under television programme.


· Pacific Islands Report

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