July 30, 2009

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock goes the Commonwealth Clock

Commonwealth to Consider Suspending Fiji Over Election Delay
By Ed Johnson

July 29 (Bloomberg) -- Commonwealth ministers will consider this week whether to suspend Fiji from the 53-nation group after the military-led government delayed elections until 2014.

At its last meeting in March, a Commonwealth committee warned Fiji it would be thrown out unless it made progress toward restoring democracy.

Since then, army chief Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who seized power in a December 2006 coup, has rejected international demands to restore civilian government by the end of the year. His ally, President Josefa Iloilo, in April abrogated the constitution, fired the judiciary, censored the media and reappointed the military government for five years.

Suspension from the Commonwealth would see Fiji lose access to the body’s $7.5 billion aid budget and further isolate the government, which has been under international sanctions since the coup.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group will meet in London July 31, according to a statement. The Commonwealth is largely composed of countries with historic links to Britain and includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

In the latest crackdown on freedom of speech, the government this month banned Fijian Methodists from holding their annual conference, saying it was too political and might encourage anti-government sentiment, the Australian Associated Press reported today.

Bainimarama says he wants to change the electoral system in the ethnically divided nation before holding a ballot. Under the present system, people in some constituencies can only vote for candidates from their ethnic community.

The 944,000-strong population is made up of 57 percent indigenous Fijians and 38 percent ethnic Indians, according to U.S. government data. Three of the nation’s four coups in the past 22 years were sparked by ethnic tensions.

Iloilo will retire as president and Vice President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau will act in the position until a successor is appointed, the government said in a statement yesterday.

And once the Commonwealth lay's down the law, there is absolutely no relevance for further deliberations on Fiji during the Pacific Forum to be held in Australia -- as Bainimarama is vainly anticipating. He should know that his ally Somare was inches away from losing power only yesterday.

Meanwhile the unbeatable and up-to-date intelligence of the US State Department in it's latest testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment says:

The Situation in Fiji
The United States also remains committed to the advancement of human rights and democracy in the region through exchanges such as the International Visitors Leadership Program and partnerships like the Asia Pacific Democracy Partnership (APDP). We are proud to note that the APDP completed a successful election observation mission – under your lead – to Micronesia in March, an effort that brought together representatives of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Palau, and several Asian countries. Thank you for your efforts on this initiative. We also are encouraged by Tonga’s initial steps towards democratic reform.

Certainly the most troubling political issue facing the Pacific island countries today continues to be the situation in Fiji, which has been under military rule since December 2006. Traditionally, Fiji has been a close and valued friend and partner in the Pacific. Fiji has a long history of contributing troops to multilateral peacekeeping missions, was quick to condemn the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and has been a staunch supporter of our efforts to build an international coalition against global terrorism.

The military coup of December 2006 has strained our relationship. Fiji’s coup leaders recently released a “roadmap to democracy” that did not take credible steps to restore democratic rule, other than a promise to begin work three years from now on a new constitution leading to elections in 2014. The public emergency regulations remain in place, the press remains heavily censored, and the right to assembly is severely restricted. Just two weeks ago, the leaders of the Methodist Church and one of Fiji’s three paramount traditional chiefs, Ro Teimumu Kepa, were arrested for planning to hold the church’s annual conference despite a government ban.

The United States responded to the Fiji coup by imposing a number of sanctions, including a cessation of military and other assistance to the Government of Fiji in accordance with section 508 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, visa bans against coup leaders, suspension of lethal military sales, and restrictions on bilateral engagement. Our sanctions are targeted against the military regime. The United States, however, continues to provide assistance to the people of Fiji. Our sanctions do not preclude assistance in support of a credible return to democracy. Such assistance would include supporting election reform efforts, as well as programs geared toward strengthening civil society, a free press, and an independent judiciary.

We continue to maintain full diplomatic relations with Fiji and look forward to closer relations when it once again resumes its leadership role in the Pacific by restoring democracy to its people.

The United States closely watches the reactions of other Pacific island leaders and the statements and actions of the Pacific Island Forum, which suspended Fiji in May. We believe that the return of democracy in Fiji will depend on the restoration of such basic human rights as freedom of speech and assembly.

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