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POLITICS-EU/ACP: Benin, Botswana, Jamaica Offer to Host ‘Suva’ Deal Signing

Brian Kenety

BRUSSELS, May 27 2000 (IPS) - Fiji is out as the venue for the signing of the new partnership deal between the European Union (EU) and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states. That honour may go to Benin, Botswana or Jamaica which have all offered to step into the breach.

On Friday, Fiji Head of Mission to the EU Isikeli Uluinairai Mataitoga told an extraordinary meeting of fellow ACP ambassadors to Brussels that his country could not host the signing and the ministerial meeting scheduled for a few days before, because it could not guarantee the safety of delegates.

The Partnership Agreement is the successor to the Lome Conventions which have governed relations between the EU and the ACP since 1975. It was scheduled to be signed on Jun. 8 in the Fijian capital Suva and until now has been informally known as the Suva Agreement.

However, one week ago, masked men armed with AK-47 assault rifles burst into the Fijian parliament around 10:00 in the morning local time, as several thousand people outside the building were demonstrating against the policies of Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, on the one-year anniversary of his election.

In a press release issued late Friday evening, the ACP General Secretariat said that Benin, Botswana and Jamaica are now official candidates to host the signing ceremony: Three ACP regional representative groups (Western and Southern Africa, plus the Caribbean) made the nominations.

At least three other ACP countries – Kenya, Mauritius, and the Dominican Republic – have stepped forward as possible hosts. ACP ambassadors are due to meet again at 11:00 am on Monday, May 29, to take a final decision on the matter. The logistics of moving the event are daunting and it is unclear which country is both willing and best suited to face the task.

Michael Curtis, a spokesman for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said last week that as there is “a large emphasis” in the new Partnership Agreement on the respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and good governance, a country undergoing a coup d’etat was hardly “an appropriate place” for the signing.

If the attempted coup is successful, Fiji faces suspension from the Partnership Agreement, which would mean a loss of significant development aid.

In a statement last week, Portugal, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, said the bloc “condemns the use of armed force against a democratically-elected leader, and the reported violence which has taken place in Suva and elsewhere in Fiji. The EU considers as totally unacceptable the taking of hostages, including the Prime Minister and members of the government of Fiji.”

The EU Presidency is calling for a prompt return to “democratic procedures and government within the terms of the Fijian constitution” and said that the EU would “monitor the situation closely bearing in mind the signing ceremony (…) and will review these arrangements in the light of developments in Fiji, it being understood that democracy is an essential component of the (Partnership) Agreement.”

Ironically, in 1993 the EU suspended co-operation with Togo, which hosted the first such pact, over concerns that elections there had not been democratic.

The situation in Fiji remains volatile, with followers of the coup leader, George Speight, still holding parliamentarians hostage in the Parliament House there. According to news bulletins on the internet news site fijilive.com, police there have handed over control of roadblocks around the building to the military after being threatened by armed supporters of the attempted coup.

Speight, the son of an opposition lawmaker, has called the action a “civilian coup” on behalf of the indigenous people of the South Pacific island. Some 44 percent of Fiji’s 800,000 people are of Indian descent. Ultra-nationalist ethnic Fijians view them as yielding undue influence and enjoying a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth.

Speight enjoys the backing of the Great Council of Chiefs, an influential group of leaders among the indigenous people of the tiny Pacific island nation.

Whichever country is selected in Fiji’s place will also host the EU-ACP ministerial-level meeting that was to take place in Suva in the days before the signing ceremony.

According to an unconfirmed report by Eurostep, a Brussels-based coalition of 22 European development NGOs, the ACP is operating under two deadlines as to when to make a final decision on a new venue.

The first and optimal deadline is Jun. 31, which marks the transfer of the rotating EU Presidency from Portugal to France. Portugal was instrumental in bringing about the EU-Africa Summit in Cairo this April, the first ever such meeting at the heads of state or government level.

According to a source familiar with the current ACP proceedings, Portugal is so “keen” to have the signing take place during its Presidency that it has offered to host the ceremony and ancillary meetings itself if the ACP cannot agree on a location before France takes over.

The source confirmed Eurostep’s report that the “final” deadline coincides with the expiry of certain transitional provisions in July, put in place following the end of the previous Lome Convention on Feb. 29. It is expected to take 15 to 18 months for the new agreement to be ratified by all the partner countries.

In other action this week, the ACP Committee of Ambassadors approved the membership of six new Pacific states to the group: the Marshall Islands and Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue and Palau, and the EU Council of Ministers agreed to their accessions without debate.

Once official, the entrance of these countries will bring the membership of the ACP group to 71 countries.

 
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