August 01, 2012

Little to change in relationships says Fiji Attorney-General

Updated 1 August 2012, 9:54 AEST

Is it premature or timely? That seems to be the main reaction to the decision by the Australian and New Zealand Government to restore diplomatic ties with Fiji and relax some of the sanctions against the interim government of Frank Bainimarama.

Since the decision was taken at a meeting of foreign ministers in Sydney on Monday we've not heard from the interim government because Fiji's Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, was not available to talk to the media.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Attorney-General, Fiji
SAYED-KHAIYUM: Well I mean it's technically incorrect to say that diplomatic ties did not exist prior to this. I mean they were still there, but the Australian and New Zealand perspective it's fairly cold and they did have some sanctions in place. It is unfortunate though I think that it has come this late I suppose, but, of course, we've always been willing to engage with all our neighbours and we've always had an open door policy, so obviously this move by Australia and New Zealand is welcome.
ALY: But you've also had or at least Australia has had human rights concerns, freedom of speech concerns, democracy deficit concerns if I can put it that way with Fiji. Have any of those concerns been allayed?
SAYED-KHAIYUM: Well, I think you need to look at the position of the Australian government in the first place. I mean the Bainimarama government has maintained a completely different position. If anybody knows about the history of Fiji, we had two coups in 1987, we had a coup in 2000, we had democratically elected government removed, we had the prime minister in 2000 was held captive for 36 days as a hostage. Yet the Australian and New Zealand government in '87 and 2000 saw it fit to immediately almost engage with the subsequent governments that were appointed that would be illegal as was held by the court subsequently. So this time round they took a very different position and in fact if you look at our prime minister's call and his objection and his motivation behind the Constitutional Reform, the abrogation, the subsequent abrogation by the president and the reforms by the government is essentially to address some very, very fundamental issues and problems that we have had and how we need to move forward on it. For example, Fiji has never had the basis of a common and equal citizenry I mean in Australia, I mean you're an Australian and I'm sure of some different background, probably of immigrant background. However, the fact is you're an Australian and may be it's first generation, second generation. In Fiji, there are people here living for five generations, but they could not be called Fijian. So in order to run a modern nation, they need to have common and equal citizenry. Furthermore, you need to have one person, one vote, one value and this is what the Bainimarama government has been yelling from the tree tops for the past three or four years, and yet the Australian and New Zealand government did not seem to want to listen to that.
In respect to some of human rights issues, those issues have been worked out and if fact if you look at some of the breaches of the rights that took place in 2000 and '87, there far more fundamental than detrimental, that is has led to a massive migration from Fiji. So I think it needs to be put into perspective. You need to get a reasonable cliche terms and look at what exactly we are doing in Fiji and what was the objective of the government over the past three years and indeed going forward.
ALY: Well, let's have a look at what you are doing in Fiji. I understand there is a constitutional process underway and the idea is to hold elections in 2014 that you're up for consultation now on the new Constitution. You also want to register voters electronically, so that's kind of the background of this, but at the same time, there is no free press in Fiji and perhaps I'm missing something, but I'm not sure what signs there are that one is about to emerge. Can you really have democratic reform and constitutional reform in the absence of a free press?
SAYED-KHAIYUM: Well, you're wrong, we do actually have free press, very simply as that, we do have free press.
ALY: But it's certainly not the Australian government's position and hasn't been for a long time. Are you saying that they got that completely wrong?
SAYED-KHAIYUM: Yes, they have. I mean we had restrictions previously, but the public emergency regulations which gave a certain level of leverage to the minister of information to be able to censure news in respect of certain things, that does not exist anymore.
ALY: How do you review then Australia's reorientation of its position in respect to Fiji? Is it a backflip in your eyes or is this a revolution of a process that a dialogue had been going beneath the surface?
SAYED-KHAIYUM: In fact we said about three or four years ago and having various conversations with your former foreign minister, Stephen Smith, and former high commissioner, James Batley, and said that it's not a question of backfllip, it's not a question of losing face, it's a question of. It's a sign of having wisdom. To be able to recognise the specificities of a particular country knowing the history, trying to understand the fundamental root causes of disruptions to democratic government and disruption to parliamentary government and how do we address that in a more fundamental manner. And I think it was a lack of understanding, but the appreciation of that would have shown wisdom and we don't necessarily see all of this as involving that one over Australia or that one over New Zealand. We do not see that as that. We see all our countries, all our countries sorry within the region and indeed outside the region as partners, as global partners and we want people to be able to understand that. And Fiji over the past 18 months to two years has in fact signed more diplomatic partnerships and relationships and bilateral relationships since it had done since independence about 35 countries. We open our embassies in Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa. We're about to open one up in the UAE. So we are engaging fully, we've joined NAM the Non-Aligned Movement and we've opened up and relaxed the rules in respect of taxation and various other issues for investment and people are seeing us for what we are doing. As you've highlighted we've put in place a constitutional process, we've appointed the chairman, Professor Yash Ghai, the prime minister has appointed him well known internationally recognised constitutional human rights lawyer and various other people who are part of the commission to. So they'll carry on with the work for the next two or three months and then they'll draft the Constitution. They're also guided by the decree that's been put in place where the prime minister stated there needs to be some what we call the non-negotiable principles and values and that is you've got to have what I said earlier on one person, one vote, one value, common and equal citizenry, ways of addressing corruption, a truly independent judiciary, the voting age to be reduced to 18 and various other aspects that are having a secular state place and these are the non-negotiable principles, which really one cannot argue against, because these are internationally recognised values and principles. So guided by that, they move ahead and they draft the Constitution which is then vetted by if you like, a Constitutent Assembly, representing various sectors of society of NGOs, trade unions, political parties etc. And once they've gathered that and it's presented to a Constitutional court our a tribunal, let's see whether it's confined to the decree and then present it to the president so sent and as the prime minister said the elections are to be held by September, 2014.

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