Clark stance over Fiji troops 'weak'

By Ruth Berry

The Government is refusing to criticise a United Nations decision to enlist more Fijian soldiers in Iraq, despite having urged it to stop using them following the coup.

The stance of both has annoyed National foreign affairs spokesman Murray McCully, who describes the UN decision as "unacceptable and unprincipled" and Helen Clark's as a "substantial backdown".

He said Helen Clark, who defended the UN by saying it was struggling to recruit peacekeepers, had made a weak response.

The criticism comes as the Government struggles over what stance to take on Fiji, where it is increasingly clear there is no real prospect of the ousted Government of Laisenia Qarase returning to power.

Before the coup, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Fiji would be asked to withdraw from international peacekeeping operations if one occurred.

Helen Clark and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters also regularly raised the threat in the coup lead-up, warning the loss of peacekeeping revenue could substantially undermine the military's power.

More than 200 Fijian soldiers were stationed in Baghdad before Christmas.

In mid-December, Mr Peters called for the UN to ban the use of Fijian military, saying: "I think some principled responses from the West are required."

This week, however, the Fijian military confirmed 12 soldiers would head to Iraq to provide security for UN personnel.

A Fijian military spokesman was quoted as saying another 24 were expected to go.

In defending the UN decision yesterday, Helen Clark said: "We never expected there would be immediate action from the UN to stop enlisting people from the Fiji military. If for no other reason that it is rather difficult to attract people to places like Iraq.

"Over time if the Fiji military is deprived of its military assistance programmes with countries like New Zealand and Australia, that may mean it is of a level of capability incompetence which wouldn't make it attractive to the UN in such capacities."

Mr McCully said National had supported the Government when it had warned of the peacekeeping consequences of a coup and the Prime Minister's response was "weak and hollow in the context of her earlier statements".

Helen Clark said the UN had not consulted the Government but Mr McCully said it had to convey its concern on the matter.

"We all have a huge stake in the stability of the Pacific. There can be no stability without the rule of law."

Helen Clark reiterated the Government was looking for a clear commitment to return a democratically elected Government to power in Fiji and the return of other democratic freedoms before sanctions would be reviewed.

The Fijian President's office said this week an interim Government led by military leader Frank Bainimarama might need up to five years in power before allowing elections to be held.

Helen Clark said that was "obviously unacceptable".

In December, the Government suspended new aid initiatives in Fiji and reviewed existing ones.

It confirmed yesterday that of the $8 million aid funding for the 2006/07 year, just $1.8 million would be cut as much of the money had been allocated before the coup.

Next year, $3.6 million is scheduled to be cut, although it will be available to be rechannelled through NGOs.

Helen Clark said New Zealand would act with other nations in deciding when sanctions might be lifted.

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