Forum’s report crucial for Fiji

A fact-finding report by the Pacific Forum Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) on Fiji will be critical for the coup-prone South Pacific island country in terms of restoration of international ties and resumption of much-needed aid following December’s military takeover, say observers.

The group began its work on Monday, just as news about the United States’ suspension of millions of dollars in aid to Fiji hit the streets, and a local newspaper headlined a story about alleged human rights abuses by the military. Jone Dakuvula, director of programmes at the influential Citizens Constitutional Forum, said that the Commonwealth, the African Caribbean Pacific group, the EU and the US which severed ties and suspended assistance, will look at the assessment by the EPG in deciding whether or not to begin the normalisation of relations. “The EPG meeting is crucial,” Dakuvula said, noting that there are still question marks over a $350 million EU assistance package for the crucial sugar industry.

The EPG’s visit has been facilitated by the Forum Secretariat, the administrative arm of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum, which includes regional giants Australia and New Zealand. The Forum is the key regional political and economic organisation in the Pacific. The four-member group is headed by Vanuatu’s Deputy PM and Foreign Affairs Minister Sato Kilman. Other members include Samoa’s Minister for Natural Resources and Environment Faimuina Luiga, Papua New Guinea’s retired Chief Justice Sir Arnold Amet and the retired chief of the Australian defence forces Peter Cosgrove.

Earlier, Washington announced that Fiji would not get aid under its Millennium Challenge Account. Fiji’s fellow Melanesian country, Vanuatu, recently received $65 million under this scheme. While Bainimarama told interviewers on national TV, Sunday, that the interim government could rule for between three to five years, Dakuvula earlier said that the EPG normally calls for elections to be held within 18 months to two years. He said that the EPG would insist on the respect for human rights, press freedoms, freedom of speech and a realistic schedule and timeframe towards general elections and democratic rule.

Som Prakash, author and academic at the University of the South Pacific, said that if military restored democracy quickly this would see Fiji gain recognition and respectability while domestically it would defuse the risk of any public dissent. “Other countries cannot and do not like to deal whole-heartedly with military regimes.”

Prakash added that Fiji was in no position to lose out on substantial amounts of money, and that the loss of the sugar rehabilitation package from the EU would be disastrous. “Sugar is vital for Fiji. The sugar dollar is retained and distributed in the country unlike the tourism dollar, much of which is repatriated,” said Dr Prakash.

Alleged human rights abuses by the army may complicate things for Fiji. The Fiji Daily Post newspaper on Monday reproduced a report by the Age newspaper in Australia alleging a crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

The report claimed that female activists are being assaulted. It said the EU had started consultations that could lead to sanctions if it decides that Fiji is abusing human rights. — IPS