Friday, August 12, 2011

Fiji issue at the forum? Democracy is a ‘done deal’ in the Pacific, says Key



Pacific Scoop News - 12 August 2011


Issues surrounding economic growth and sustainable development continue to dominate Pacific Islands Forum rhetoric. 

The pillars of security and good governance are subsequently left fighting for a place in the forum’s long term vision for the Pacific region.

John Key

NZ Prime Minister John Key talking to journalists at Auckland University's Fale Pasifika. Photo: Sarah Robson/PMC







Report – By Sarah Robson
While Pacific leaders are busy celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Pacific Islands Forum this year, little mention is being made of what lies ahead for the region’s pariah state Fiji.
Fiji is proving to be the thorn in the side of the PIF, with the military-backed regime continuing to defy regional and international pressure to reform its political system.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key delivered a keynote speech at the University of Auckland last week as part of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders lecture series.
This comes in the lead up to the main event, the PIF meeting itself in Auckland early next month.
Key will chair this year’s gathering and for the next year – and will be responsible for setting the tone and direction of the PIF.
If Key’s speech is anything to go by, Fiji will not be such a hot issue on the agenda.
In his nearly 15 minute address, Key did not once mention “Fiji”.
Little on security
Nor did the issues of security and governance – two pillars of the much-lauded Pacific Plan – feature heavily in Key’s address.
The question looming over the PIF is whether it has the regional clout to be an effective voice on issues of security and governance. It would appear that the Forum has already fallen on its sword in the case of Fiji.
Speaking to media outside the university’s Fale Pasifika, Key explained the absence of the Fiji issue from his speech.
“We think it’s, in one sense, a relatively settled issue. We would love to see progress in Fiji and we continue to have dialogue with them,” he said.
“As we’ve always said, this isn’t a personal issue against Fiji. In fact the sooner they get back to democracy the better, and we’re happy to give them any support they might need.”
Key said that for the most part democracy was a “done deal” in the Pacific: even the kingdom of Tonga was now in the midst of its own transition towards more democracy.
Fiji still a problem
PIF 40 years logo
Fiji, though, still presented a problem.
“Fiji is the one issue, obviously, that sits out there, and I think there’ll be some discussion at the forum about Fiji, but I don’t think forum leaders will overly dwell on that issue.”
The Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, praised Key’s speech for its emphasis on opportunities in the Pacific, rather than using it as a chance to count problems in the region.
Before Key spoke, Slade explained that the PIF represented a shared effort by Pacific leaders to “improve the lives of our citizens”.
He acknowledged, though, that the forum needed to look to new approaches to dealing with the shared challenges the region faced.
However, issues surrounding economic growth and sustainable development continue to dominate forum rhetoric.
The pillars of security and good governance are subsequently left fighting for a place in the forum’s long term vision for the Pacific region.
Security and the Pacific Plan
The Pacific Plan, which came into being in 2005, establishes a vision for the role of the Pacific Islands Forum in the region.
The plan states that “leaders believe the Pacific region can, should and will be a region of peace, harmony, security and economic prosperity, so that all of its people can lead free and worthwhile lives.”
It goes on to add that “we seek a Pacific region that is respected for the quality of its governance, the sustainable management of its resources, the full observance of democratic values and for its defence and promotion of human rights.”
The plan outlines four strategic objectives – economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security – as means of achieving the overarching goals of the forum.
Dr Steven Ratuva, senior lecturer at UOA’s Centre for Pacific Studies, says the forum has “a very important responsibility in terms of the security framework in the Pacific”.
He notes, though, that there is no regional security framework currently in place, despite much talk around the issue of security.
“Although the Pacific Plan has security as one of the pillars of the plan, it has been alleged that much if it is very much driven by Australia’s security interests.”
War on terror
Dr Ratuva says that at the time the plan was formulated, the war on terror was the biggest factor motivating Australia’s attitudes towards regional security.
“One of the difficulties in the Pacific is the inequality of political power. Australia and New Zealand have substantial power in what they can do.
“Their security interests are very different from the security interests of the small island states. The security interests of Niue, the security interests of Fiji are very different from the security interests of Australia, for instance.”
Constructing a cohesive security strategy for the Pacific will be a challenge.
“To put together a security framework is not going to be easy, something which will represent the different security interests of the different countries,” Dr Ratuva says.
The security interests of, for example, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and the small island states have more do with internal stability, rather than any threat from terrorism, Dr Ratuva says.
“I’ve always argued against a lot of the Australian academics, when I was at the Australian National University, about the fact that terrorism is really not an issue in the Pacific, the issue is really internal political instability.”
Fiji and regional security
The ripples from the political crisis in Fiji have been felt around the Pacific region, according to Dr Ratuva.
“Certainly what it’s done is it has created some degree of instability within the region – the relationship between Fiji and Tonga, for instance; the relationship between Fiji and other small island states as well, Samoa for instance, and within countries,” he says.
“The Fiji situation has created instability, it has reconfigured the dynamics of geopolitics in a particular way that is so different from the past.”
Despite this, Pacific leaders are reluctant to broach the issue any further.
“To tell you the truth, I think the forum is fed up with discussing Fiji,” Dr Ratuva says.
“I think when they want to do it, there might be some direct resistance in terms of, why bother with it? The forum’s pressure hasn’t worked, in fact Fiji’s been ignoring all those.”
Fiji was formally suspended from the PIF in 2009. Then forum chair, Niuean premier Toke Talagi, said in a statement that “a regime which displays such a total disregard for basic human rights, democracy and freedom has no place in the Pacific Islands Forum”.
Human rights issues
An Associated Press story from May 2009 reported Fiji’s rejection of fundamental principles of the forum – including the full observance of democratic values, and the defence and promotion of human rights – gave leaders no other alternative than to suspend Fiji from full participation in the Forum.
This move has done little to encourage Fiji to speed up democratic reforms and bring forward elections planned for 2014.
Dr Ratuva suggests that because Australia and New Zealand assert themselves as regional powers, they see it as their responsibility to address the situation in Fiji, for reasons of security and stability.
However, Dr Ratuva says many other Forum members see the matter differently.
“I don’t think small island states are in a position to welcome anything about the discussion of Fiji. They probably think there are more serious matters other than Fiji.”
Sarah Robson is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.
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