Somare's speech highlights gap in forum opinion on handling Fiji

By Claire Trevett

The stark differences in Pacific Islands Forum leaders' views on Fiji became clear last night when Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare took the unusual step of releasing his speech to the forum while the leaders' meeting was still under way.

The 15 leaders were meeting last night to decide whether to discipline Fiji after its interim Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, backed down on promises to hold elections by March.

Sir Michael's speech to the other leaders urged against punitive action.

"I am of the strong view that adopting an isolationist approach would be unhelpful."

Releasing the speech while the meeting was still going on highlights the split in opinions between the Melanesian countries and others such as Australia, which is expected to push for Fiji to be suspended from the group until a democratic government is elected.

It could also undermine one of the fundamentals of the forum, which is based on decisions by consensus.

Traditionally, all leaders are expected to publicly back the forum's decisions and forum discussions remain under wraps after a compromise has been reached.

In the build-up to the meeting, the leaders refused to say what outcome they wanted because of the consensus approach.

Sir Michael told the other leaders that he had been frustrated at Commodore Bainimarama's refusal to attend last year's Niue meeting and the seeming lack of progress toward elections, but he did not believe punitive sanctions would help.

"The challenge for us, I believe, is to resist the temptation of giving into our frustrations over broken promises and the seeming lack of progress towards restoring democracy in Fiji.

"Let us help Fiji finetune a roadmap with realistic timelines to return her to a durable democracy.

"Let us identify specific areas in the roadmap where we can provide financial and logistical support to Fiji."

He also took a swipe at New Zealand and Australia, reminding them that when the predecessor to the Pacific Islands Forum was set up, there was much debate about whether to leave the "metropolitan powers" out in case they overwhelmed the smaller countries.
The leaders considered a report from a group of the forum countries' foreign ministers, which was expected to say there was no evidence that Fiji could not hold elections within six months. It was also expected to suggest the forum set a firm deadline by which Fiji had to hold elections.

Under the Biketawa Declaration, the leaders had an open slate on what they could do with Fiji. The declaration does not specify any actions to discipline recalcitrant states, leaving it to the leaders to decide what measures are suitable.

Commodore Bainimarama pulled out of the meeting last week, saying he was needed in Fiji to focus on the aftermath of the floods - a decision that was criticised by New Zealand and Australia.

He sent in his place interim Attorney-General Aiyaz Saiyed-Khaiyum, who spoke to the leaders and then said he had not given them a timeframe within which elections would be held.

He said he told them Fiji was happy to work with international agencies on its electoral reforms and once the new system was developed it would take from 12 to 15 months to prepare for an election.

He also reminded the forum they had not taken punitive action against the Sitiveni Rabuka regime after the 1987 coup.

In the past week Commodore Bainimarama has sacked his foreign affairs secretary after he commented on Commodore Bainimarama's decision not to attend the forum.

He also recalled Fiji's envoy over the issue and yesterday he deported Fiji Times publisher Rex Gardner to Australia, nine months after ejecting his predecessor.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday such actions were provocative and would not help Commodore Bainimarama's case with the forum.

- NZ Herald

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