Australia changes tune on Fiji’s involvement in peacekeeping but that’s all: Joanna McCarthy interviews Kevin Rudd
Two items forwarded by a reader with this note: “Listening to Radio Australia on short-wave in the evenings, I picked up two gems last night - tracked them down this morning. 1) in response to the flak Aus/Rudd has been receiving lately, he's issued an appeasing statement on Fiji UN troops (and co-incidentally there is an article in yesterday's Sun about them); 2) but he's dug in his heels generally about Fiji - we can huff-and-puff about the PI Forum and the Commonwealth being against Fiji - I wonder how many listeners know that it is Aus that engineered such opposition? And does the CMAG really 'engage' with Fiji?
Australia changes tune on Fiji's involvement in peacekeeping
Joanna McCarthy, Canberra
Australia has reversed its opposition to Fiji taking part in the United Nations security assistance mission in Baghdad.
Fiji has more than 200 troops in Baghdad as part of the UN Guard Unit.
In the past, Australia has lobbied against Fiji taking part in peacekeeping.
But now Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd says he won't oppose Fiji taking part in the future Baghdad mission.
"While we normally prefer democracies to do this sort of work, we Australia have decided, all factors considered, not to object to this," he said.
Last week, the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute urged the government to take a new approach to its relations with Fiji's military government.
It called for Australia to step up its diplomatic contacts with the regime and work with its regional partners to offer help with electoral reform.
Rudd Interview: Joanna McCarthy, Pacific Beat, Radio Australia
RUDD: I think the first thing to say is that Australia delivers international development assistance to underpin Australia's national interests, which are about our national security interest, particularly in our own region, in South East Asia and the south west Pacific. It's also in our national interest because if we have stronger economies in our region through development assistance cooperation, it helps Australia's national economic development itself. And thirdly, we have an interest, together with countries around the world enhancing what we call the global order, which means that when you have real poverty around the world, together with other countries you can make a difference and in recent decades hundreds-of-millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. So we see this as consistent with Australia's national interest. Furthermore, we made a commitment that we'd increase our overseas development assistance cooperation to zero-point-five per cent of gross national income by 2015-16. It is sensible to bring this about step-by-step between now and then, rather than some mad rush towards the end. We think therefore this is the reasonable, responsible approach.
McCARTHY: The Pacific land program has been cut from the budget. Why is that?
RUDD: Well, we've always said we want value for money and we want an effective aid program. We have stringent mechanisms in Aus Aid, our international development agency to evaluate the progress of each individual program. This one didn't cut the mustard and so I made no bones about it, but if you're not cutting the mustard, you cut the program and you redirect those funds to other funds which are effective. Furthermore, the task which was set for that particular program to do with land reform in the South Pacific, which is important for long term economic development there will be absorbed within the existing country programs under the aid budget throughout Melanesia and beyond.
McCARTHY: So does that mean there is an additional boost to those individual country budgets to accommodate that land reform program?
RUDD: It'll be, well our overall aid to the South Pacific continues to increase and you'll see that from the overall numbers. But when we say absorb it within the existing country programs, that task of long term land reform will be undertaken as part of our overall governance reform programs within the South Pacific countries.
McCARTHY: The budget statement on aid says Fiji's poverty is increasing and the key sectors, like the sugar industry are declining and there is an uncertain future under the military government. You yourself have said there's been no measurable change, no progress towards democracy since the 2006 coup. Many observers and the Opposition are calling for you to re-engage with Fiji. What indications do you have that the current approach is working?
RUDD: I think the first thing to put in mind is that the coup that has occurred in Fiji is no ordinary coup. People often diminish its significance. The Constitution has been suspended, opposition political figures have been arrested, the freedom of the press has been suspended, journalists have been harassed, some of them expelled, civil society leaders, including church leaders have also been harassed and some of them prohibited from attending public meetings. This is no ordinary "coup". Let's bare that in mind. I think the second point is this. It is the view of the Pacific Island Forum, not just Australia, it's the view of the Commonwealth of Nations, all 53 of them that the Fijian regime has not made sufficient steps towards the restoration of democracy. This is not a uniquely Australian view. It's shared throughout the entire Commonwealth, developed and developing countries alike. On our engagement with Fiji, again that proposition is wrong. We engage with Fiji through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, we engage with Fiji of course through the Ministerial Contact Group of the Pacific Island Forum. That proposition is not right, but what we do need to see is real concrete moves on the part of Fijians. One other thing about Fiji, our development assistance aid to Fiji has increased this year. We remain the largest single donor to Fiji's development assistance program. On top of that, there are no bans on travel or tourism by Australians to Fiji and the tourism industry is critical for their country's future. There are no economic sanctions against the Fijian economy imposed by Australia. There are individual travel sanctions against the leaders of the coup regime. I think that's the right and normal approach. So therefore let's put all this in context. And one final thing on Fiji, Fiji, for example, around the world, from time to time engages in assistance to the United Nations in various peacekeeping operations and recently, there's been a discussion in the international community about the Fijian armed forces contributing to the future security assistance mission in Baghdad around the UN mission in Iraq. And taking all factors into account and while we normally prefer democracy to do this sort of work, we Australia have decided all factors considered, not to object to this. So I think there may be an interest on the part of some in Fiji, to say that these measures by us are excessively harsh. We are highly critical of the regime's approach to democracy. As you can see from the other things I've said, the arteries of economic engagement are open and political engagement through the relevant mechanisms of the Commonwealth and Pacific Island Forum. Our argument is not with the Fijian people. It's with those who have led this military coup.