Editorial: Forum's firm line puts ball in Fiji's court

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In the lead-up to the Pacific Islands Forum's special meeting on Fiji this week, John Key made a pertinent point. The forum, he said, was the right body to handle the failure of Fiji's military regime to return the country to democracy - but if it failed to do so, others would step up.

The United Nations or the Commonwealth Secretariat, organisations more removed from the region, would become the focus of attempts to force Commodore Frank Bainimarama's hand. The forum would be sidelined, its credibility a victim of its own ineffectiveness. That reminder might well have galvanised forum members to take the firmer line they did.

Fiji will be suspended from the forum if it does not set a firm election date for this year and present a clear and detailed timetable for doing so by May 1.

In reality, this was the minimum response required of the forum in the circumstances. It fell short of the direct suspension advocated by Australia as valid retribution for Commodore Bainimarama's cavalier treatment of the organisation. But it was stronger than the response that seemed likely, given the push against punitive action by the Papua New Guinea Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, and the fears of retaliation raised by some smaller states,

such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, which depend on Fiji for many of their economic and travel links. This was very much a decision arrived at by consensus.

Suspension would exclude Fiji from any regional initiatives run by the forum, most damagingly those related to trade, and deny it new financial and technical help. But it would be fanciful to suggest this will propel Commodore Bainimarama towards elections this year. Even as the forum leaders were gathering in Port Moresby, he was telling a military parade in Suva that a new electoral system was paramount and it did not matter if it took five or 10 years

to implement it. He was also ordering the publisher of the Fiji Times to leave the country, yet further evidence of his regime's determination to stifle dissent and debate.

All this is depressingly familiar. Commodore Bainimarama has shown scant regard for international opinion over the past two years. An aid-related ultimatum from the European Union prompted the prospect of free and fair elections this March. A similar pledge was made to the forum. Both have been dishonoured. Badly needed foreign capital, and the wellbeing of the Fijian people, have been sacrificed in the process.

Delegations of South Pacific foreign ministers who have visited Suva have concluded there is no practical impediment to holding elections within a relatively short period. All that is missing is a willingness to return to democracy. That disinclination has also led Commodore Bainimarama to sidestep the two most recent Pacific Island Forum meetings. This, alone, speaks volumes about his lack of regard for Fiji's neighbours. Finally, their growing impatience

with his insincerity and intransigence has promoted a response that at least safeguards the forum's reputation.

It now seems unlikely, however, that any international criticism will persuade Commodore Bainimarama to change course. There is nothing to suggest that the further harsh words from the United States this week, looming suspension from the Commonwealth or action by the UN will have a great impact. International diplomacy has become simply a matter of maintaining the pressure.

The hope must be that Fiji's pariah status, with the impact of sanctions, will foster a growing unease among its people. In the end, it will be up to them to put Commodore Bainimarama back in his barracks.

- NZ Herald

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