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ECONOMY-FIJI: ‘Sanctions Could Hurt the Wrong People’

Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Dec 30 2006 (IPS) - With the international community clamping a range of sanctions on Fiji’s military regime, there have been warnings that such action could harm the civilian population, or lead to further tension in the South Pacific island nation that saw its fourth coup in less than 20 years on Dec. 5.

Prof. Biman Prasad who teaches economics at the University of the South Pacific said the international community should be mindful that sanctions could be counterproductive at the time when a constitutional solution to the crisis was being sought.

He was reacting to the New Zealand government’s announcement that it would exclude Fiji from a recently established guest worker scheme for short-term seasonal workers from the Pacific, and stop issuing scholarships to Fiji students.

Prasad said New Zealand’s decision to suspend Fiji from the guest worker scheme was unfortunate as it comes at a time when the country is in great need of such employment creating initiatives. He said the move would have no effect on the military which toppled Fiji’s elected government but punish the poor and the unemployed.

“It’s a bad decision that should be quickly reversed,” Prasad told IPS in an interview. “In the next couple of months, Fiji’s economy will likely suffer a steep decline. A lot of people, both skilled and unskilled, will be thrown out of employment.”

Earlier, the Coalition for Democracy and Peace, consisting of citizens’ groups and non-government organisations, said the poor would be most affected by sanctions imposed by New Zealand. ‘’Removing scholarships and access to guest work scheme will affect poor people and not the military,” the group said in a statement. ‘’This shifts the negative impact of the military takeover on to ordinary citizens.”

Australia suspended support for Fiji’s public sector reform, the electoral office and assistance to some agencies in the law and justice sector such as the police and prisons, while the United States suspended 2.5 million dollars in military-related assistance to Fiji.

A statement from the Australian foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer’s office said that as far as possible, Australia would not take any actions that would hurt the people of Fiji, and that it would only suspend assistance where the “actions of the military rendered their programmes ineffective or compromised their integrity.”

The statement said that Canberra would maintain aid in other important areas such as health, education and community development. Britain, meanwhile, has stopped recruiting Fijians into its army, while the French government also suspended military assistance and slapped a travel ban on officials with ties to the military.

There are also question marks hanging over a 350 million dollar European Union sugar industry rehabilitation aid package following the union’s resolution to suspend non-humanitarian aid to Fiji.

Prasad said the industry had already been hit by an expected decline in world sugar prices from next year and that the suspension of the EU assistance scheme would choke it to death with severe economic, social and political implications, particularly in the rural areas where an estimated 200,000 people relied directly and indirectly on the industry for their livelihood.

“If the sugar reforms do not take place, thousands of people will lose their jobs. Returns from the land leased by native landowners will decline and this will lead to further political and social strife,” Prasad warned.

New Zealand’s Green Party member of parliament Keith Locke has also voiced his concerns about the effectiveness of sanctions. In an interview with New Zealand’s Niu FM radio, he said his country’s government needs to address the underlying causes of the crisis and help facilitate dialogue. “Sanctions alone are not good enough. Sanctions have to be combined with promoting dialogue between the political forces in Fiji, including the military, to return to democracy as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, a group of Indian academics, religious leaders, political and cultural representatives have called for the formation of a multi-racial organisation to look into the crisis and have suggested ways of resolving the impasse. The group, which met in Suva recently, said the failure of existing institutions and political parties to resolve the crisis caused them to make the call.

Prasad, who chaired the meeting, said participants recommended the enactment of laws to curb corruption and establish a code of conduct for public office holders.

The army had alleged that the government of Laisenia Qarase was corrupt and that the coup was a ‘clean-up campaign’. The resolution said “in order to create a genuinely inclusive and cohesive society, it was important for every individual, every organisation and all the stakeholders to work together.”

Summit participants “called for a speedy return to democracy and parliamentary rule” and those involved in the crisis asked to respect the Constitution and to find solutions to the crisis within the constitutional framework.

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