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Drama in Fiji affects the whole region

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COMMENTS

14 April 2009 09:29

Dramatic events in Fiji over the Easter weekend have set the country on a dangerous new course to economic ruin, posing a very real threat to regional economic stability. A Court of Appeal decision on 9 April ruled the December 2006 coup illegal and directed Fiji’s President to appoint a new interim Prime Minister to call elections. 

President Ratu Joesfa Iloilo then announced on 10 April that he had abrogated Fiji’s 1997 constitution, appointed himself head of state, revoked the appointment of all judicial officers and promised to direct an interim government to hold parliamentary elections by September 2014. 

He also declared a period of public emergency rule. The following day he re-appointed Bainimarama (pictured) as interim Prime Minister and other members of the existing interim government.

If this wasn’t bad enough, Bainimarama’s 'new' interim government imposed strict censorship on all news outlets in the country and will deport veteran ABC Pacific reporter Sean Dorney from Fiji today.

These developments have attracted strong condemnation from the international community. Fiji faces suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum and Commonwealth in the coming weeks. Australia will be considering the imposition of tougher sanctions on Fiji to punish the interim government for its outrageous and illegal actions.

I argue in a Policy Brief to be published this week that Australia has a clear obligation to differentiate between its political response to the abrogation of the constitution, which needs to be strong and unambiguous and its economic response, which needs to take into account the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in Fiji and the impact of economic collapse in Fiji on the whole Pacific Islands region. 

The region and in particular the smaller states of Kiribati and Tuvalu are highly dependent on a functioning Fiji economy. Fiji is the region’s hub for trade, transport and education services. It houses many regional institutions, including the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the University of the South Pacific. A number of international organisations and non-government organisations serve the region from offices in Fiji as well.

Australia is the only country with sufficient influence, resources and means to stave off economic catastrophe in Fiji. If Fiji’s economy collapses, the costs of action to address a potential humanitarian and law and order crisis, not just in Fiji but across the region, later will be very significant.

The Australian Government must now find a way of punishing what is effectively a military dictatorship in Fiji and simultaneously providing financial assistance that will help stabilise the Fiji economy, address the humanitarian needs of the people of Fiji and save its own neighbourhood.

How Australia reacts to Fiji’s economic crisis will be remembered by the people of Fiji and the region. If Australia stands aside, no matter how rightly principled its approach to illegal developments in Fiji and how well understood its approach is in educated circles in Suva and other capitals, it will be sending an important and enduring signal about the limits of Australia’s interests in its neighbourhood.  Much — including much beyond Fiji — now rests on the strength, creativity and wisdom of Canberra’s response. 

Photo by Flickr user Rizwan ud Dean, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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