Pacific leaders to decide Fiji fate

By Claire Trevett

The leaders of the 15 Pacific Island nations will meet in Port Moresby this afternoon to decide whether to punish Fiji.

They will decide whether to follow through on a warning that Suva could face suspension from the forum for breaking its promises to hold elections since the December 2006 military coup.

It will be the first time the forum has considered serious disciplinary action against a member nation.

Prime Minister John Key, who arrived in Papua New Guinea last night, said New Zealand did not intend to dominate the meeting "but we do have a strong view of the outcome that should be achieved".

"It is no secret we want to see tangible signs [Fiji's interim Prime Minister] Mr Bainimarama has a plan for restoring democracy. After two years of waiting, the Pacific leaders are entitled to see some action."

Mr Key spent most of the Air Force Boeing 757 flight to Moresby talking about Fiji with other leaders, including Tongan Prime Minister Fred Sevele, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaeta and Niuean Premier and forum chairman Toke Talagi.

He said after arriving that most of the leaders were aware of the significance of the meeting and wanted an outcome. He emphasised that forum members needed to be unified in their stance.

In a meeting this afternoon, Mr Key is expected to push for at least a partial suspension until Fiji is on the path to elections.

Australia is expected to take a harder line, including fully suspending Suva from the forum until after it holds elections.

Leaders from some other countries - including Tonga and Niue - have said they are reluctant to suspend Fiji, but have also made it clear they want some answers. They will also be aware the Commonwealth ministerial action group is meeting next month to discuss whether to take further action against Fiji for failing to restore democracy within the Commonwealth's two-year deadline.

However, there is some concern that continuing to give Fiji too much leeway will set a bad precedent for dealing with other countries with governance problems.

The prospect of having the forum's "Pacific Way" viewed as ineffective could prompt the forum leaders to at least set a date for later this year at which Fiji will be suspended if it does not show concrete steps toward elections.

Eduardo del Buey, the Commonwealth Secretary General's spokesman, said the action group hoped to meet in coming weeks. While it would take into account the Pacific Island Forum's position from today's meeting, it would be guided by its own principles - under which a two-year deadline applies for states in which a democratic government has been overthrown to return to democracy.

Mr Key said the forum needed to show it could deal with its own regional issues. "It will weaken the forum if we can't show leadership. This is the best group to handle the situation. We have the greatest knowledge, the greatest empathy, and long-term contact."

Labour leader Phil Goff said he expected the Commonwealth to move to full suspension when it met next month. Fiji was already suspended from taking part in Commonwealth meetings and it was almost automatic for full suspension to follow if states went beyond the two-year deadline.

"I have no doubt the Commonwealth will move to fully suspend Fiji because it cannot have one set of rules that apply to actions in regard to Nigeria or Zimbabwe and another set that applies to another member of the Commonwealth."

Disciplining a member state is unturned turf for the forum. It is up to leaders to decide what action to take against any country that breaks the forum's governance guidelines if attempts to help it have failed.

The forum leaders first warned Fiji they would consider suspension in a unanimous statement after the leaders met in Niue last August.

It followed anger by forum leaders at Commodore Frank Bainimarama's reneging on a commitment he gave to the forum in 2007 that an election would be held by March this year, and at his refusal to front up at the Niue meeting to explain it.

Commodore Bainimarama has told the forum that elections will not be held this year because of the need to make electoral reforms.

- NZ Herald

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