Resolving the Fiji Impasse: Let the Pacific Lead

By Gerald McGhie*

Former NZ diplomat, former Director of the NZ Institute of International Affairs,
former Chairman Transparency International NZ
 
Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama’s track record does little to encourage those who look to an early negotiated settlement to the current coup/crisis. But the coup is now in its fourth year and Bainimarama remains well entrenched. Action to date has not brought him to the negotiating table.

Given the unproductive rhetoric and exhortation from both sides the stand-off seems likely to continue. Should New Zealand be looking for alternative approaches? The short answer is "yes" but power struggles, ethnic and land disputes have a habit of locking themselves into the DNA of Pacific communities. Given the essential complexity of the problem there can be no quick fix or short term solutions to the issues surrounding Fiji. 
 
It is hard to believe that the Pacific, an area noted for its complex procedures of conflict resolution, has not yet produced a formula that all sides can accept. Overtures have been made. Sir Michael Somare has recalled that at its inception in 1971 the Forum was determined to have an inclusive membership. That principle has underlined his approach to the region ever since. He has also said that "the Pacific way is not about burning bridges" it is about "going the extra distance, compassion and participatory democracy". If there are any lessons to be learned from previous coups, he said, "hurriedly prepared elections and token changes to rules do not ensure real democracy."

In spite of Somare’s experience and insight, momentum has been lost. Bainimarama’s sharply worded criticisms continue. The Forum meets and disperses.

But have negotiations to date been a genuine reflection of the fa’a Pasifika? Regretably Pacific Forum countries have an excellent record of producing documents. Most are quickly ignored particularly the Eight Points of Accountability on Good Governance and the less useful Pacific Plan. But the 2000 Biketawa Declaration has proved more durable. Somare drew on this document at a Forum meeting in January 2009 when he exhorted members to "constructively address difficult and sensitive issues including underlying causes of tension and conflict". Biketawa refers specifically to ethnicity, socio-economic disparities, lack of good governance, land disputes and the erosion of cultural values as continuing areas of concern. These factors are all in play in Fiji: Somare's plea was to engage the interim government fully to help political dialogue succeed.

But for governments to say that they are ready for talks is not enough. Personal animosities have reached a point where approaches have to be carefully tested. All sides must address three issues before proceeding. When to talk, what to say and how to say it. But most of all Australia and New Zealand must take a step back and allow the Pacific countries to initiate and carry out the discussions themselves. Realistically Bainimarama is in control and he will not compromise on the Roadmap, the constitutional reforms and the elections in 2014. Negotiations with him will not be easy but if understandings can be agreed and adhered to at least there will be some structure on which to base discussions.

Early contact between the parties would be modest and low key. A Pacific based Negotiating Group (PNG) would send an unambiguous message to the interim government that they will address all items on Fiji's agenda. For their part New Zealand and Australia would offer a simple statement agreeing that they would be prepared to enter into serious negotiations at an appropriate time but until then Forum contact would be in the hands of Bainimarama's Pacific colleagues. 
 
These actions are limited in scope and would not at first substantively alter the character of the Fiji Government’s relations with the Forum (and New Zealand and Australia) but they would communicate to the interim Prime Minister that all Forum members intend to pursue a different strategy. That new policy would require a new tone. Fiji is a proud nation. Continued denunciations and comments dismissive of the regime would only produce greater intransigence. Thus Australia and New Zealand must be clear. Endorsing their own agenda, engaging in tough talk while indicating a readiness to seek negotiations is unlikely to succeed. More important, relations with Fiji must not be played out in terms of domestic constituency politics in New Zealand. The Fijian diaspora will know that they stand to gain from realistic negotiations.

The Pacific Negotiating Group will require a leader. To date Sir Michael Somare has spent considerable time and much reputation coaxing Bainimarama back into the fold. He should at least have the right of first refusal. Appropriate support for his activities is vital. He must have a new and well-qualified team. The UN has experience of dealing with similar knotty problems. As an expression of goodwill the Pacific Forum nations could make a joint approach to the Secretary General to seek his involvement. New Zealand and Australia would underpin the negotiations by ensuring the provision of adequate finance and support for the Pacific Negotiating Team.

Neither side involved in the negotiations is likely to achieve all their aims. They seldom do when the primary challenge is political. But Fiji's internal disputes, unresolved since independence and before, have to be dealt with by Fijians and the decisions reached accepted by the Pacific and wider community. The involvement of the United Nations would provide a measure of legitimacy. Certainly no country in the region will benefit in the long term from a banished and ailing Fiji. Fiji's neighbours must be aware of this.

It would be naive to assume that there are no risks or obstacles associated with this approach. But suspicion now dominates a relationship that has a long history of cooperation. Australia and New Zealand can impose costs on Fiji but they cannot impose their will. If the US can seek talks with the Taliban it's time to demonstrate continuing diplomatic skill in dealing with a festering and unacceptable Pacific problem.

* First published in Wellington's DominionPost.



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