From Paramountcy to Equality: Constitutionalism, Dialogue & Ethno-Political Conflict in Fiji

Rev. Akuila Yabaki.
CEO of Citizens’ Constitutional Forum
(Concluding from last Saturday)

Dialogue & bringing people together

There have been a few attempts since December 2006 to bring people together to try and address the past problems of political instability. The major one was the NCBBF, which was established to bring people together to talk about moving the country forward. The process attracted considerable support, but it also attracted strong opposition by those  that refused to participate (including the Methodist Church). The Charter process attempted to address past conflict and provide potential solutions through Chapters such as “Ending the Coup Culture” and “The role of the Military”.

The process ultimately resulted in a document that could form the basis for continued debate and dialogue. Critics of the Charter would argue that the lack of inclusivity and perceived flaws in the process of consultation makes the Charter is more divisive than unifying.

The final document was endorsed by the President and the interim government was given a mandate by the President to implement the Charter. Whilst the interim government has purported to be implementing the Charter, they have failed to act consistent with the charter, and in particular the spirit of it. The Charter was always intended to beimplemented by consensus and consultation.

This PPDF process commenced in mid 2008 to bring the major political parties together and to discuss electoral reform and other issues. The International community32 offered their support to this process provided that it was inclusive, independently facilitated, time bound and without any predetermined outcome.

The process started off promisingly through the Political Leaders Dialogue Process. In March 2009, 15 local civil society organisations were invited to be a part of the PPDF. The selection process for these organisations was not entirely transparent. Political  parties were to make 2 nominations each and the final 15 were selected by the Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, none of the active human rights organisations were invited to participate. Some organisations were reluctant to accept nomination by political parties
on the basis that it would politicise their work and because they lacked confidence in the independence of the process.

In April 2009, four of the major political parties (including the ousted SDL party) were excluded from participation in third meeting of the Political Leaders Dialogue as they refused to sign a statement agreeing not speak to the media and committing to electoral reforms. This effectively stopped the PPDF from getting off the ground as the proposed facilitators, the UN and the Commonwealth Secretariat, would not continue without inclusivity.

A track II dialogue process was established (called Dialogue Fiji) parallel to the impending PPDF process, in order to ensure that civil society and the public could have a meaningful contribution. The advantage of this mechanism is that it recognises that there are things that governments can do and people cannot, and there are things that people can do that governments cannot. 33 This process aimed to address both the political and

32 The Commonwealth Secretariat and the United Nations agreed to facilitate this process.
33 H. Saunders, A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts,
1999, St Martins Press, described at

social factors that contribute to political instability and recognises the importance of public consultation and support for politically agreed outcomes to be sustainable.

Track II dialogue processes are often referred to as “citizen diplomacy”34 and it works by bringing citizens at all levels (e.g. community, civil society and local leaders) together in an environment which is informal, low-key, non-confrontational, open and safe where they can reflect on the dynamics of their relationships with each other, break down stereotypes and explore possible solutions to the conflict. An environment free from threats or coercion and having no predetermined outcome is essential to the development of innovative ideas which may eventually resolve the conflict.

Whilst governments have the capacity to make changes at the political level, the implementation of these changes is not sustainable without public involvement and consensus. Building and repairing relationships in a fractured society takes time. For  this reason, the process needs to be open-ended and inclusive for it to provide more than a band-aid solution to the problem.

Due to the time-consuming nature of this form of dialogue, it should not be used as a reason to delay or postpone decision making at the government or political level. Civil society dialogue can operate concurrent to a political dialogue process and continue after political agreements have been reached. In essence, the two processes complement each other and reinforce the same objectives.

Can Dialogue Work?
Both tiers suffered a major set back with the purported abrogation of the Constitution and the subsequent restrictions imposed. The interim government seems determined to push ahead with its own agenda regardless of whether or not they have popular or legal support. This begs the question of whether the PPDF was doomed to fail. Certainly, the exclusion of key political players indicates the unwillingness of the regime to tolerateopposition and accept inclusivity. It is also unclear whether the UN and the
Commonwealth (who agreed to jointly facilitate the political dialogue to ensure its
34 Chigas, Track II (Citizen) Diplomacy, Beyond Intractability, August 2003, accessed at: on 3 September 2009

independence) would have continued to offer their support with the exclusion of these

In an address to the nation 35 on 1 July 2009, Commodore Bainimarama outlined his framework for the following five years. Within the speech there was no mention of any form of political dialogue up to September 2012, after which it was suggested there will be an inclusive constitutional development process. In essence, the PPDF seems to have fallen by the wayside from the government agenda over the next few years.

Dialogue has the potential to be an important tool in addressing ethno-political conflict in Fiji, but it will only work if there is a genuine commitment from all levels of society to participate in the process.

In order for a dialogue process to have any meaningful impact, the interim government will need to participate willingly and in good faith. It is crucial that current restrictions (PER) which suppress freedom of expression, assembly and association be lifted, so that civil society can express their views in this forum without fear of reprisal.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group,36 the Pacific Islands Forum37 and the Commonwealth Secretariat38 have all offered their support for a dialogue process that leads to elections. Fiji’s two major political rivals, Qarase and Chaudhry (both former Prime Ministers), who were once unable to share seats in Cabinet together, are now working together to encourage the PPDF to get back on track. In conjunction with this, the Dialogue Fiji process is continuing with some degree of government support.

A dialogue process has the ability to address some of the social factors which have led to the present political conflict provided that it is inclusive, independently facilitated and representative of diverse community interests. If changes occur without maintaining a connection to the people, it will be a top-down approach which might resolve the political

35 Speech delivered by Commodore Bainimarama, A Strategic Framework for Change, 1 July 2009,accessed at: on 3 September 2009
36 Special Melanasia Spearhad Group (MSG) Leader’s Retreat, Port Vila, Vanuatu, 10 July 2009, Joint
37 40th Pacific Islands Forum, Cairns, Australia, 5-6 August 2009, Forum Communiqué
38 Extraordinary meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), London, 31 July 2009,
Concluding Statement

and legal dimension to the conflict, but it will not address the social element. The risk with this approach is that it will be unsustainable.

Regardless of whether there is an immediate or delayed return to democratic and constitutional rule in Fiji, there is a need for ongoing measures such as dialogue to promote and facilitate harmony and cohesion amongst and within Fiji’s different ethnic groups. Eventually, these measures may lead to a more formal process for the recognition of the ethnic divisions which have plagued Fiji’s past, including the possibility of a Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal which might have more extensive powers to redress past wrongs and expose the truth behind the conflict.

Constitutionalism plays a key role in establishing the legal and political framework for government. Even a good constitution cannot ensure political stability if it is not properly understood and supported by the citizens of a country and the people in power. There is a need to reform the electoral system and other government procedures to remove the focus on ethnic identity, and also address the social factors leading to conflict though an ongoing, inclusive and independent dialogue process.

Without an ongoing commitment from all aspects of society to engage in an open, inclusive and fair dialogue process, including from the interim government and the military, the ethno-political conflict will prevail. With the right attitude, dialogue can bring people together and help reconcile Fiji with its past history of ethno-political conflict.

An advanced legal system that promotes equality will not be sustainable without addressing the social element, particularly in a country where there has been a history of disrespect for the law through several unconstitutional overthrows of government. It is the people that lend authority to government (whether elected or not). If people embrace and actively support multiculturalism, politicians and people in power will not further their agendas through racial politics. Adequate legal and social structures are essential to
promote a fully integrated, nonracial Fiji which respects equality and human rights.


What dialogue? said…
Where is the inclusive dialogue? There has been none. The CCF need to face the facts as most of us have well before this - a military coup is a military coup - any pretence that it brings benefit to a nation is rubbish.
Same old rabbiting on said…
Oi, "What dialogue?" What new ideas have you come up with? Just the same old anti- regime blah, blah, blah. You know, nothing you've written here offers any fresh perspective. It's as if the 2006 coup has just happened and that's where civilisation ends. Yes, I can understand you're still grieving. But it's high time to move on, just as the good Reverend says. There is no dialogue because people like you don't want it.

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