3 May 2009

Fiji suspension 'cheque-book diplomacy'

9:55 pm on 3 May 2009

Fiji's attorney-general believes cheque-book diplomacy was at play with the decision to suspend Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum.

The forum suspended Fiji at midnight on Friday night, at the lapsing of a deadline for the interim regime to announce an acceptable election date.

The country's interim attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, says Australia and New Zealand, whose economies are much larger than other Pacific nations, dominate the forum.

"Obviously there is chequebook diplomacy at play," he says. "Many of the forum island countries are small and vulnerable countries."

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum says the decision is regrettable and short-sighted, but Fiji will continue its good relationships with other Pacific island nations on a bilateral basis.

He says, however, that it's patronising to expect Fiji to hold elections when its system is inherently flawed, and that it shows countries like Australia and New Zealand are not interested in ensuring true democracy.

More action possible - union

The Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions believes the suspension is the first step towards further international isolation.

The organisation's general secretary, Attar Singh, says the Commonwealth is likely to take its cue from the forum's action, and if it also suspends Fiji the lives of workers will become more difficult.

Mr Singh says thousands of people in Fiji have already either lost their jobs or are working on reduced hours.

Fiji 'disregards human rights'

In suspending Fiji, the forum said there was no place for a regime that disregards basic human rights, democracy and freedom.

The suspension was also "particularly timely given the recent disturbing deterioration of the political, legal and human rights situation in Fiji since 10 April 2009," forum chair Toke Talagi said.

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said he is not putting any conditions on contact with the Fiji leadership, and said any time the regime indicates a willingness to make progress "they know how to contact me".

Last month Fiji's president revoked the constitution and sacked the judiciary, after the Court of Appeal ruled the interim government illegal. Emergency regulations were brought into force and media have been subject to censorship. Military leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama has said there will be no elections until 2014.

'Harmful to region'

Economist Biman Prasad, from the University of the South Pacific, says suspension is likely to be more harmful to the region than to Fiji itself, given the amount of trade between Fiji and other Pacific nations.

He says the global economic downturn will make the impact of a suspension even worse.