August 01, 2012

Fiji must still feel the pressure

From: The Australian August 01, 2012 12:00AM

FOREIGN Minister Bob Carr needs to be careful not to give away too much, too soon, in Fiji. The agreement, with New Zealand, to return our respective high commissioners to Suva and allow Fiji to reappoint a high commissioner in Canberra is not an especially big deal.
But the danger is the country's military strongman, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, will interpret it as reward for progress towards democratic reform when, in fact, there has been little. Any such misconception will do nothing to maintain the pressure needed to ensure an early return to elected civilian rule.
In a statement with his New Zealand and Fiji counterparts, Senator Carr explained the move would open channels of dialogue. That's fair enough. But it needs to be placed in the context of Fiji's tardy progress towards restoring democracy and Mr Bainimarama's penchant for promising much and delivering little. It is important to measure words against deeds and there is no escaping the reality that for all Mr Bainimarama's hype about elections promised for some time after September 2014 (eight years since he staged his second coup), the country is anything but free or democratic. The media is shackled, human rights are under constant threat, a ban on meetings has only just been lifted and trade unionists are imprisoned.
In their statement, Senator Carr and his colleagues spoke of progress towards the election, including preparations for constitutional consultations and electronic voter registration. There are indications the drafting commission, headed by the respected international constitutional expert Yash Ghai, is making some headway. But it's hardly enough to justify any accolades for Mr Bainimarama that may be implied in the high commissioners' return. It might have been prudent to await more tangible signs of progress towards reform before normalising relations. Even better would have been to make normalisation contingent on holding a demonstrably free and fair election, something that might have persuaded Mr Bainimarama to bring forward the distant date of 2014. Now that Senator Carr has made his decision, however, the return of our high commissioner to Suva must be used to leverage even more pressure on Mr Bainimarama for a democratic election to be held sooner rather than later.

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