Isolation “serves no useful purpose”

Greg Sheridan writes in The Australian about the effectiveness or otherwise of sanctions and isolation on Fiji. This is a refreshing departure from the usual claptrap dished up by the mainstream media on the topic of Fiji:

Take Fiji. Recently Fiji’s strongman, Frank Bainimarama, appointed a constitutional commission under the leadership of the distinguished Yash Ghai to write a new constitution. When Bainimarama saw what it had produced, he tore it up. The international community (I know the word’s an oxymoron, but let it pass) generally condemned Bainimarama without qualification. The most common criticism was that the Fijian leader could not tolerate the constitution’s proposed separation of the military from politics.

Carr’s response was more modulated, more nuanced. He noted, rightly in my view, that the commission had proposed numerous undemocratic elements for a new constitution. One was the revival of the Great Council of Chiefs, which has been the source of so much destructive Fiji nativism, directed primarily at Fiji’s Indian minority. Another was the commission’s proposal for an undemocratic body to sit alongside parliament as a kind of advisory group, also charged with the task of appointing the president.

Carr was then criticised by commentators, many perfectly sensible people, on the basis that he was being too soft on Bainimarama. I think it was more a case of what Amanda Vanstone sagely identified on ABC’s Q&A on Monday as a politician injecting unwelcome complexity into a complex question where many NGOs, activists and some in the commentariat want simple responses.

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Murray McCully was far more robust in his criticisms, so there was some difference between Canberra and Wellington. 

The Great Council of Chiefs was a corrupt organisation that did much to hold Fiji back. To suggest reinstating it was simply stupid on the part of Yash Ghai. The media and their useful repeaters in the blogosphere simply jumped on top of this story with no care to the facts of the issue. McCully showed once again that in regards to Fiji he is as captured by MFaT officials as any other minister has been.

But Carr was right on the substance and in the larger strategic picture. It would do the Fijian people no good at all to isolate Fiji, to send it into the arms of China, to destroy its economy, to further polarise and radicalise its society. The government there has done a lot of undemocratic things and these deserve to be criticised, but on the international scale of human rights abuses it is at the absolute gentlest end of the spectrum. Things could be much, much worse.

Which is why I highlight the constant hypocrisy of signing free trade deals with regimes that are far more totalitarian than Fiji, and far more abusive of their population. Our politicians and media seem to have blinkers on, waxing lyrical about free trade deals with Vietnam, Thailand and China, but pouring scorn of Fiji at every opportunity. To what end? To wreck their economy?

The Australian government’s policy on Fiji has evolved. A few years ago Canberra was pursuing a more confrontational approach to Suva. One senior American official commented to me at the time: “I can go to meetings in Pyongyang but I can’t visit Fiji because of Australia’s opposition.”

That situation, frankly, was nuts. Carr tries hard to encourage the Fijians to fulfil their pledge of an honest election next year. It may be a flawed election. Fiji may become a flawed democracy. But that may be the best outcome available in the real world.

If we wrecked the Fijian economy with sanctions and produced another failed state, that would be disastrous for the Fijians and pretty bad for us. Carr has also eased up on the travel bans on non-military members of the Fijian government. This is absolutely right. He stresses to the Fijians all the time that Australia’s priority is a clean election in Fiji. Even if this is not altogether satisfied, I would still strongly favour a policy of continued engagement.

Nuts is right. Most people who blog from Wellington about Fiji do so never having been there, reading the spin of reporters with agendas and echoing what is spinning around the beltway.

Isolation as a policy was a disaster when applied to Myanmar, and in its milder form wholly counterproductive with Fiji.

If sanctions and isolation were the tools with which to bring about change in Fiji they have singularly failed. Far better would have ben cooperation and assistance. We can hardly complain if things fall over when we stood back and watched and pointed our fingers.


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  • Andy

    As a frequent visitor to Fiji, I agree with you 100%.
    Let Fiji get on with it and support the positive changes under the current government.

  • I agree that as far as dictators go, Bainimarama is extremely benign and his constitutional changes are desirable. However, you can’t get away from the fact that Fiji has essentially been run by the military since 1987 rather than by an elected Government. Removing the military influence on Fiji is necessary.

    What chance that cooperation will achieve that?

    • StupidDisqus

      Removing the military influence on Fiji is necessary

      Given a choice of a) military (and businesses) vs b) Labour and unions – pretty damn clear which one to pick!

  • StupidDisqus

    Fiji staged military coups to prevent Labour/Union government.

    It is a matter of simple fact that Australia would have been far better off in 2007 – or NZ in 1999 – had similar democratic intervention taken place to prevent Labour governments.

    Frankly, should Labour somehow “win” NZs next election, as similar intervention would be required to preserve democracy in NZ.