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SOUTH PACIFIC: Regional Forum’s Report Crucial for Fiji’s Future

Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Jan 29 2007 (IPS) - A fact-finding report by the Pacific Forum Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) on Fiji will be critical for the coup-prone South Pacific island country in terms of restoration of international ties and resumption of much-needed aid following December’s military takeover, say observers.

The group began its work Monday, just as news about the United States’ suspension of millions of dollars in aid to Fiji hit the streets, and a local newspaper headlined a story about alleged human rights abuses by the military.

Jone Dakuvula, director of programmes at the influential Citizens Constitutional Forum, said that the Commonwealth, the African Caribbean Pacific group, the European Union and the United States which severed ties and suspended assistance, will look at the assessment by the EPG in deciding whether or not to begin the normalisation of relations.

“The EPG meeting is crucial,” Dakuvula told IPS, noting that there are still question marks over a 350 million US dollar, European Union assistance package for the crucial sugar industry.

The EPG’s visit has been facilitated by the Forum Secretariat, the administrative arm of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum, which includes regional giants Australia and New Zealand. The Forum is the key regional political and economic organisation in the Pacific. The four-member group is headed by Vanuatu’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Sato Kilman. Other members include Samoa’s Minister for Natural Resources and Environment Faimuina Luiga, Papua New Guinea’s retired Chief Justice Sir Arnold Amet and the retired chief of the Australian defence forces Peter Cosgrove.

The group’s mandate is to facilitate the “restoration of democratic government within the boundaries of Fiji’s constitution and the rule of law; and to consider the role the Forum Secretariat and its members might most usefully play in assisting Fiji achieve this outcome”. The group met President Ratu Josefa Iloilo and interim Prime Minister and military commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.

The chairman of the group, Kilman, remained tightlipped after the meetings, telling journalists that a statement would be issued at the end of the mission later this week. Bainimarama told a local radio station that the talks were “fruitful”.

The group will hold talks with Fiji’s influential tribal leaders who come under the grouping of the Great Council of Chiefs, political parties, civil society groups and other stakeholders during the week. It is then expected to travel to Mavana in the Lau Group, the home island of Fiji’s ousted Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, to meet with him. Qarase has effectively been exiled to the island by the military, which is refusing to allow him to return to the capital, Suva. The group’s visit has received the backing of the U.S. government, which said in a statement that it supported efforts by the Pacific Islands Forum to encourage the swift restoration of democracy. The statement added that the military takeover had severely set back Fiji’s political and economic development and its relations with the U.S. and that Washington was prepared to work closely with the EPG and the Pacific Islands Forum in getting Fiji back to democratic rule.

Earlier, Washington announced that Fiji would not get aid under its Millennium Challenge Account. Fiji’s fellow Melanesian country, Vanuatu, recently received 65 million dollars under this scheme.

While Bainimarama told interviewers on national TV, Sunday, that the interim government could rule for between three to five years, Dakuvula earlier said that the EPG normally calls for elections to be held within 18 months to two years. He said that the EPG would insist on the respect for human rights, press freedoms, freedom of speech and a realistic schedule and timeframe towards general elections and democratic rule.

Som Prakash, author and academic at the University of the South Pacific told IPS that if military restored democracy quickly this would see Fiji gain recognition and respectability while domestically it would defuse the risk of any public dissent. “Other countries cannot and do not like to deal whole-heartedly with military regimes.”

Prakash added that as a developing country, Fiji was in no position to lose out on substantial amounts of money, and that the loss of the sugar rehabilitation package from the EU would be disastrous. “Sugar is vital for Fiji. The sugar dollar is retained and distributed in the country unlike the tourism dollar, much of which is repatriated,” said Dr Prakash.

Alleged human rights abuses by the army may complicate things for Fiji. The Fiji Daily Post newspaper on Monday reproduced on its front page a report by the Age newspaper in Australia alleging a new crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

The repot claimed that female activists are being assaulted and sexually humiliated. It said the EU had started consultations that could lead to sanctions if it decides that Fiji is abusing human rights.

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