By Sir Ronald Sanders
The military leader of Fiji, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, recently said that he would like to cut his country’s ties with neighbouring Australia and New Zealand and align with China. His statement would find little support amongst the people of Fiji who value their long and deep relationship with Australia and New Zealand.
Bainimarama’s reason for saying he would sever ties with Australia and New Zealand and align Fiji to China has nothing to do with the interests of his country or his people. It is entirely to do with Bainimarama’s perception that China would be tolerant of his government which resulted from a coup d’état four years ago.
Both Australia and New Zealand – countries to which many Fijians have emigrated and who are Fiji’s biggest trading partners – have seriously objected not only to the military coup, but also to the fact that Bainimarama has failed to hold democratic elections at which a civilian government could be elected. Neither country shows any sign of letting-up on their objection to a serious violation of democracy in Fiji.
The Commonwealth – a grouping of 54 nations of which Fiji was a member along with Australia and New Zealand – suspended Fiji from the Councils of the Commonwealth immediately after the Coup, and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) suspended the country fully from the Commonwealth in 2009 after further gross violations of the Constitution by the Bainimarama regime including the dismissal of judges who ruled that his regime was illegal.
Australia and New Zealand are in the forefront of upholding CMAG’s position in Fiji. And, they are not alone. Other big Commonwealth nations such as Britain, Canada and India insist that a condition of membership of the Commonwealth must be adherence by governments to the democratic values and principles to which the organisation’s member states have declared themselves to be committed.
Fortunately for the people who live in the Fiji Islands, neither Australia nor New Zealand has imposed tough sanctions or bans. Had they done so the Fijian economy – already suffering from the consequences of a military government – would have collapsed, and the people of the Islands would have suffered extreme hardship. A significant amount of their exports and their tourism would have been adversely affected creating high unemployment and increased poverty. There would also have been a greater exodus of qualified people than there has been.
Australia and New Zealand have chosen instead to join their fellow members of the Commonwealth in keeping up pressure on the Fijian regime to restore democracy in the country. They have also relied on the “good offices” role of the Commonwealth Secretary-General to find ways of opening up an effective dialogue with the Fijian regime to return the country to democracy.
So far, these efforts have failed amid Bainimarama’s determination to maintain himself in power. In the meantime, the people of Fiji suffer, and the regime shops around for governments that would give it assistance despite its naked abuse of power.
But, Fiji’s immediate neighbours in the South Pacific have shown their deep concern about the abrogation of democracy by suspending the country from the 16-member South Pacific Forum last year.
Shopping around for support for an undemocratic regime is hardly the answer to the Fijian government’s unconstitutional status and the pariah status that the country is acquiring. Eventually, pressure will mount both internally and externally to isolate and remove a regime that clings to power without the will of the people.
China has been long in the game of international politics and it is unlikely to extend any great comfort to the Fijian regime for a sustained period, particularly as Fiji has neither an abundance of resources in which China is interested nor any particular strategic interest.
It is in the manner of the Commonwealth’s method of operation that it will not surrender the people of Fiji to an unelected government, particularly one that seized power at the point of a gun. In this connection, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, repeated the Commonwealth’s determination to help Fiji to restore democracy while continuing its suspension from the Association.
The point may come, however, when a determination will have to be made about how much longer an unelected regime is allowed by the international community to hold a country hostage to its will. The danger of a more prolonged “capture” of the state apparatus by Bainimarama and his military supporters is that it might encourage similar unconstitutional developments not only in the Pacific but in other regions as well. For, if other regimes feel that Bainimarama can get away with flouting democracy they may be tempted to do so themselves, especially if countries such as China give them succour however temporary.
The Commonwealth will have a unique and special role to play in all this. It is a value based association of 54 nations drawn from every continent of the world and representing one-third of the world’s people. Unlike many other multilateral organisations it has declared democracy, freedom, human and civil rights to be its core values, and in the past particularly on issues such as racism it was the world’s torch-bearer; its moral conscience even as many governments turned a blind eye to atrocities in Apartheid South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the interest of economic gain.
In a world where human and civil rights are increasingly being defiled, many will look to the Commonwealth to raise the banner of democracy and to push for it to be upheld. Fiji is one country where unconstitutionality will demand further and stronger action from the Commonwealth. Zimbabwe, where the Robert Mugabe regime has practiced the worst form of discrimination and brutalized its own people, is another.
Human rights and democracy should not be for sale.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sir Ronald Sanders. Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.