February 21, 2012

Radio Australia: Could NZ have stopped Fiji's 2006 coup?

Updated February 20, 2012 10:29:16

An article in the New Zealand Herald over the weekend suggests that New Zealand had the opportunity to prevent the 2006 coup in Fiji but let it pass.

The lead up to the coup in 2006 was a long and very public one.

Commodore Bainimarama made no secret of the fact that he was unhappy with the then Prime Minister, Laiesenia Qarase and the SDL party and unless he stepped down the military would take over.

The article "New Zealand foiled Fiji police commissioner's request to arrest Bainimarama in Wellington resulting in 2006 coup" is the prelude to a book expected to be released in two months time.

Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker:Russell Hunter, former CEO of Fiji Sun and first publisher to be deported from Fiji, and Leader of New Zealand First Party Winston Peters
Listen here.

HUNTER: What you're suggesting that there was more to this. Commodore Bainimarama was aware that the Fiji police wanted to arrest him on a charge of sedition, but couldn't get close enough, because he was permanently surrounded by heavily-armed bodyguards. At the same time, the Fiji police were also closing in on the murders of the CRW, Counter Revolutionary Warfare soldiers that followed the mutiny of 2000. To say that the Commodore was a suspect is quite wrong, but he was very high on the list of persons of interest and we do know that he had evaded at least two invitations from Police Commissioner, Andrew Hughes, for a non-caution interview, just a chat as Andrew Hughes put it. So there was also pressure on the Commodore and if any further incentive were needed for this coup, then there it was. If he had not acted when he did, he would very likely have gone to jail, so there were all these factors in play at the time.

COUTTS: OK, none of this has been born out.

Mr. Peters to you now, a direct quote from the article says that had Bainimarama been arrested in New Zealand, the Fiji military would have been unable and unwilling to proceed with the removal of the Qarase government. You were the then foreign minister. What's your account of it, is that correct?

PETERS: Well, the fact is that these are statements being made now, but if you look at the substance of it, there was never going to be any action of that type out of New Zealand, because there was no law to bring such an action about in New Zealand. The very idea of arresting somebody in New Zealand because of events in Fiji without any international protocol would have been an extraordinary irresponsible act for a country like New Zealand or Australia, for that matter to endure and I'm aware of the comments and suggestions and the planning of ideas, but it was never going to be a goer.

COUTTS: Russell Hunter back to you now. You suggest that there's Wikileaks information to support your claim?

HUNTER: Yes, there was. Well, I don't know that it supports any claim, but certainly there was at least one leaked cable that indicated that New Zealand Foreign Affairs. I suggest this was the Civil Service not the body politic.

The foreign affairs view was that there was next to no hope of a political or diplomatic settlement in Fiji.

COUTTS: And is that your account of it to Mr. Peters?

PETERS: Oh look, this is a bit more complex than it seems from the comments or views that appear in various, well diplomatic or international papers.

Remember, Bainimarama was involved way back at the time of Speight, not in a way that he seems he is painted as an angel for democracy. I think there's far more information to suggest that he was himself partly involved in it and there may have been a switch later. And then you come forward to Australian head of police, Hughes, making suggestion to our head of police, a man called Howard Broad, that such an arrest should be taking place. At the diplomatic level, they were told very clearly from the foreign affairs, New Zealand's point of view or foreign affairs was told we are not getting involved in such a serious issue without any international merit, without any international precedent to that. The fact is, of course, there had already been three coups before that, and it was very clear then and with retrospect from my meetings that Bainimarama was hell bent on doing this regardless.

COUTTS: And Mr. Peters, just sticking with you for the moment. Wouldn't an international incident being one of the allegations that Mr. Hughes and his family were threatened and had to do a midnight flit. They left the country in a hurry. Wouldn't that have been a trigger for the arrests?

PETERS: No, of course not. I mean the fact is this is an internal Fiji circumstance. We're very much aware of the fact that Hughes had to flee the country and his family, we could see why. If you are facing up to a coup at any moment, then the likely consequences of what would happen to the Commissioner were very, very clear, given that when he says bring Bainimarama in for a chat, that wasn't the intention. Bring Bainimarama into arrest him was what the intention would have been. Now that's all within the per view of Fijian politics, but it's not within the per view of New Zealand or international politics in the way that say these Wikileaks or these other documents might be painting them.

COUTTS: Russell Hunter, you also say in this article quoting again directly "Mr. Hughes, with permission from New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, the then prime minister Helen Clark accompanied Mr Qarase on a flight". He had already sent two senior officers, an assistant commissioner and a prominent detective to Wellington to liaise in the planned arrest. So it did get that far?

HUNTER: Oh yeah, according to Andrew Hughes it did and it's important to, to remember that again according to Mr. Hughes there was an offence in New Zealand for Commodore Bainimarama to answer. This is what the whole thing was based on that he had committed an offence in New Zealand and could be arrested. Again, according to Mr. Hughes there was at first agreement that this would happen and two teams from each force worked over a weekend to establish the fact that there was a case to answer and the exact chain of events after that is less than clear. But what we do know is that Mr. Broad eventually said no, we're not going ahead with this.

COUTTS: And on that point, he did have a change of heart. Can you shed any light on that Mr. Peters as to why Mr. Broad did change his mind?

PETERS: In regards to this issue, he might have been head of the police, but this is an international matter at that point in time and I did not believe for a moment that either Helen Clark or anybody else in New Zealand would have thought this was New Zealand politics that were in the government would have thought that this was a course of action that could have been taken. But they may have been talking about it from the view of these are options we might like to present for the government, but they had and would have got I believe no authority to even to put them into place. Because if you look at and the Pacific context, this was a serious, serious departure from sound international relations and the sort of relations are very important to New Zealand.

COUTTS: It was agreed according to your article Russell Hunter that there was a case to answer on a sedition charge. What do you really know about it though, because Mr. Broad has now retired, refusing to comment citing secrecy laws and Andrew Hughes himself has also remained silent?

HUNTER: Mmm. No, it wasn't a sedition charge. The charge they were contemplating was perverting the course of justice in a foreign jurisdiction. This was in relation to remarks that Commodore Bainimarama had made in New Zealand referring to his investigation for sedition. Andrew Hughes has told us that he at first was satisfied that there was a case to answer and that again, according to him, both forces were convinced that an arrest could, at least theoretically be made. When Mr. Broad who did actually comment to the New Zealand Herald in the end, saying that he was quite comfortable with his decision, but when he got back to Andrew Hughes to say well, this is not going to happen. Foreign affairs prefers a political solution, Andrew Hughes said he argues as hard as he could that this was purely a police matter. It was not a decision for foreign affairs to make.

Now there the trail goes cold. We don't really know what happened after that.

COUTTS: And Mr. Peters, is that your account of it as well, not much is known following that?

PETERS: Well, I think more was known than we're hearing now. But the fact is that the law upon which you would base any such interventions, that is the arrest of Bainimarama in New Zealand simply does not in the context that you've just heard exist. So on what basis would we be acting, that somebody wasn't potentially wasn't involved in sedition in a foreign land. Fiji is an independent country and this is extraordinary that the Australian policeman and I thought so at the time that the head of the Australian head of the Fijian police seemed to have a pretty raw understanding of where the boundaries were and this is a very clear example of it,

COUTTS: And Russell Hunter, do you agree?

HUNTER: Not entirely. I can see where Mr. Peters is coming from. It would have been in my personal view a very dramatic step for New Zealand to take. But both sets of police seem to have been convinced at least at one stage, that there was a case to answer in New Zealand and not in Fiji, in New Zealand.

COUTTS: OK. Just finally then Russell Hunter, you're sticking with your article and the coup of 2006 could have been prevented?

HUNTER: Oh yes, it could have been, yes.

COUTTS: And Mr. Peters, do you agree it could have been prevented?

PETERS: Well look, if you were to look at other options, for example, a more responsible military in Fiji, a range of leadership issues, but with hindsight one may not be able to use that defence of the chieftainship system in Fiji itself. There are a lot of things you could say, but basing it on the so-called intervention of New Zealand police, with respect to potential sedition offences in Fiji seems to me to have been an extraordinary based on which you make up this claim.

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