By Congressman Eni Faleomavaega

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Dec. 14, 2011) – I have been a strong advocate for giving Fiji’s interim government the support it needs to carry out the reforms vital to the future of the country, especially when considering the serious issues of constitutional and electoral reforms that need to be in place before the proposed elections of 2014.

For a country emerging from nearly a century of British colonialism and decades of racial and ethnic conflict, with four military coups and three constitutions over the span of a quarter century, Fiji has reached a very difficult and historic moment in its political, societal, and economic development. The experiment of democracy that began when Fiji gained independence from the British in 1970 has been complicated by inevitable consequences of views on race and ethnicity that have proved volatile in Fiji’s recent history as an independent nation.

Despite the inherent complexities of Fiji’s current status, the interim government’s announcement to conduct national elections in 2014 has provided a clear indication that all efforts are being made to achieve this goal. Just recently, Prime Minister Bainimarama has reaffirmed his commitment to hold elections by September 2014. Fiji also announced that work is on the way to establish a new constitution no later than

September 2012 to establish a fully representative government based on an electoral system that guarantees equal suffrage and not based upon race or ethnicity.

To reinforce these promises, Fiji’s 2012 Budget allocated some $5.9 million for electronic voter registration. An official government document soliciting provision of the new registration system indicates that the government also plans to follow through on its promise to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 years old.

In recent years, the interim government has carried out several reforms to modernize Fiji, including equal rights for women and regulations that mandate greater transparency in government. Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum also stated that more changes in law are to be expected with a greater focus on the constitution and electoral laws and that there will be no negotiations on ethnic voting during consultations on the new constitution.

Fiji is trying to meet its goals and hoping the interim government will carry out such critical reforms. Yet of special concern to me have been the actions by Australia, supported by the U.S. and New Zealand, to penalize Fiji. After the 2006 coup, Australia and New Zealand engaged actively to persuade other island countries to suspend Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum. Under the leadership of Australia and New Zealand, Fiji was also suspended from its membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. Furthermore, Australia and New Zealand even tried to prevent Fiji from participating in the UN peacekeeping operations, but failed in this effort.

Australia has since implemented targeted autonomous sanctions against Fiji including travel restrictions for coup supporters and government officials and suspension of ministerial level contact with the interim government. While New Zealand has re-established ministerial level contact, it has upheld sanctions similar to Australia, including a freeze on Fijian participation in recognized seasonal work and a visa ban on most Fijian athletic teams.

The question that comes to mind is that after five years of failure of sanctions against Fiji by Australia and New Zealand, what now? Recently, one of the most influential Australian think tanks, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), in a wide-ranging review titled "Our near abroad: Australia and Pacific islands regionalism," recommended that Australia "repair the relationship with Fiji."

The report, written by Tasmania University Professor Richard Herr and ASPI’s Director of Research Programs, Anthony Bergin, noted that Australian sanctions have proven ineffective, impractical and dysfunctional for Australia’s image in the region in that they are being subverted by other organizations including the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the Forum Fisheries Agency and even RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. It also notes that the delay in repairing the relationship has proven costly as other states have taken up ASPI’s 2010 proposals concerning Fiji. The resulting effect is that attitudes in Fiji have hardened toward the need for Australian assistance. In summary they state:

"The relationship between Australia and Fiji needs to be addressed at the highest level, not by setting pre-conditional demands or through intermediaries."

"At a minimum, the regional sanctions against Fiji must be lifted to re-engage Australia and Fiji through the Pacific Islands Forum on a non-prejudicial basis."

Three months ago, another reputable Australian organization, the Lowy Institute, published the results of a poll it had conducted in Fiji that found Prime Minister Bainimarama with a 66% approval rating. Yet the official Australian government reaction was to disregard the results of the poll, although it was conducted by the reputable Lowy Institute.

During all this time, the Pacific Island neighbors of Fiji have showed their support. A week before the Pacific Islands Forum met in New Zealand this past September, the island nations of the Pacific Islands Forum accepted Fiji’s request and attended the second annual "Engaging with the Pacific" meeting in Fiji. Twelve island nations were represented at the meeting.

In attendance were the Prime Ministers of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands. The Ministers of Foreign Affairs from Nauru and Timor-Leste were also present, and so were the Minister of Lands from Tonga, the Special Envoys of the President of Kiribati and the President of French Polynesia. The Ambassadors from the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Marshall Islands’ accredited to Fiji also attended the meeting, along with the Vanuatu representative. The leaders emphasized the importance of Fiji’s continuous engagement with the region, including full participation in development initiatives and programs, while also supporting Fiji’s process for reestablishing parliamentary elections.

From the U.S. perspective, it should be noted that President Obama is serious about reengaging with the Asia-Pacific Region as demonstrated by his hosting of APEC in Honolulu and attending the East Asia Summit in Bali last month, as well as sending Secretary Clinton to Myanmar. This reengagement should extend to Fiji, in my view, a country which has been a staunch ally of the U.S. for the past forty years.

There is no question Fiji is currently faced with many difficult issues to resolve. However, for New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. to demand immediate elections and to place sanctions as a means to punish Fiji will not solve Fiji’s unique problems. Sanctions against Fiji have gone on now for five years and the most obvious result of the constant criticism has been to drive the Fijians to look elsewhere for their needs. Pacific regional leaders would be wise to re-engage with Fiji as a reminder of what it means to do things the "Pacific Way." And what is the "Pacific Way" of doing things? It means when somebody is hurt or having serious problems, you don’t punish him, you help him.

Cong. Faleomavaega is the former Chairman and current Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

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