International Responses to the Military Takeover

Postdate: 16/ 02/ 2007

The military takeover of December 5 has prompted responses from many foreign governments and inter-governmental organisations. Strong anti-coup statements and sanctions imposed by our regional neighbours, New Zealand and Australia, seem to have attracted the most media attention in Fiji to date. The recent visit by an Eminent Persons Group mandated by the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers also received substantial news coverage. Less publicity has been given to several other important international responses to the coup, including those of the Commonwealth, the European Union and the United Nations.

In this article I would like to outline four key international responses to the takeover that are significant not only for Fiji’s reputation within the region and around the world, but also for our national economic prospects. These responses are those of: first, the Pacific Islands Forum; secondly, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Harare Declaration; thirdly, the EU (within the framework of the Cotonou Agreement); and, fourthly, the UN Security Council and Secretary-General. Starting with the Pacific Islands Forum, an emergency meeting of Foreign Ministers held in Sydney on the eve of the coup agreed to appoint an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to meet relevant parties to what was then a political impasse in Fiji, and make recommendations for a way forward. While the “impasse” was resolved the next day by way of the military takeover, the EPG was convened nonetheless, and visited Fiji with the permission of the interim government from January 29 to February 1.

Its terms of reference were:

(i) to assess the underlying causes and nature of the coup;
(ii) to assess the prospects for appropriate resolution of the present situation;
(iii) to identify steps that the parties in Fiji may take to move swiftly and peacefully toward the restoration of democratic government; and
(iv) to consider what role the Forum and its members might most usefully play.

The EPG is due to complete its report next week, which will be considered by Forum Foreign Ministers at the end of the month. It remains to be seen whether the report will be made public. Either way, the EPG’s report will probably determine how the Pacific Islands Forum deals with Fiji in the immediate future, and significantly influence decisions of Forum member countries – notably Australia and New Zealand – concerning bilateral relations, including trade and aid. Staff of the Commonwealth Secretariat have indicated they will also be looking to the EPG’s report for direction – and at the interim government’s response to the report – when they advise the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which is next due to meet in September. The CMAG is convened by the Commonwealth Secretary General (currently Don McKinnon), and comprises between eight and 10 Foreign Ministers of Commonwealth member states. The CMAG was established by Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1995 to deal with “serious or persistent violations” of the principles set out in their 1991 Harare Declaration. These principles include for example “the liberty of the individual under the law”, “equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief,” and “the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives”. The CMAG was especially designed to deal with the unconstitutional overthrow of democratically-elected governments. It has already met once, on December 8, to consider Fiji’s latest coup. At that meeting it condemned the military takeover, suspended Fiji from the councils of the Commonwealth, called for the immediate restoration of democratic government, and asked the Secretary General to deploy his good offices in consultation with the CMAG’s chairperson, including the possibility of a Commonwealth mission to Fiji. Suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth means that representatives of Fiji’s interim government are excluded from all inter-governmental Commonwealth meetings and, while existing technical assistance to Fiji may continue, no new technical assistance may be provided, except assistance aimed at restoring democracy. As already mentioned, it now appears the Commonwealth Secretariat will rely on the report of the Pacific Islands Forum’s EPG, rather than sending its own mission to Fiji before the CMAG meets again in September.

All the same, staff of the Commonwealth Secretariat have been visiting Fiji this week to make their own assessment of the situation, and the possibility of the Commonwealth appointing a Special Envoy or other official mission at a later date remains. Like the Pacific Islands Forum, the Commonwealth is not an association that wields significant direct power over its members. However, the positions it adopts collectively do influence the decisions of its member states individually, and these again include Australia and New Zealand, as well as several of our other neighbours in the region, and of course the United Kingdom. Turning to the response of the EU to the December military takeover, there was immediate condemnation from the EU Presidency (Finland), the European Parliament and the European Council. However, the “main game” has yet to begin, with millions of euros in aid money riding on the outcome of consultations that are expected to commence next month under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement. This includes $F350 million allocated by the EU to assist in reforming our ailing sugar industry – money local experts say is crucial to the industry’s survival. The Cotonou Agreement is a partnership agreement between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of countries. It is built on three pillars: aid, trade, and political aspects. Within the pillar of political aspects, respect for human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law are made “essential elements” of the agreement (Article 9). (“Good governance”, defined with reference to preventing and combating corruption, is made a “fundamental element”.) Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement provides for the European Union to invite a member of the ACP group which it considers to be in violation of one of the essential elements of the agreement to enter into consultations focusing on measures to be taken by the ACP state to remedy the situation. If the ACP state refuses to consult, or if the consultations do not lead to a mutually acceptable outcome, then the EU may take what are called “appropriate measures” – such as suspending aid. Now, the European Commission proposed in January that the Article 96 procedure should be used in response to the Fiji coup. Recognising the central importance of aid allocated to our sugar industry, it also stated that “a convincingly positive outcome” of the consultations could avoid the EU suspending aid, and could even allow it to consider “support for remedial measures” (press release, 17 January 2007).

The proposal for consultations under Article 96 is expected to be supported by the EU member states, and a formal invitation to consult could be sent to the interim government within days. Consultations between the EU and Fiji must thereafter begin within 30 days, and they may continue for a maximum of 120 days (approximately four months). It seems likely the consultations will take place in Brussels, not Suva. So the Interim Foreign Affairs Minister and his staff will have their work cut out, and perhaps other ministers too, in trying to secure a positive outcome. Finally, coming to the United Nations, both the Security Council and the then Secretary-General were following developments in Fiji with concern before December 5. Kofi Annan reportedly warned on November 28 that a military takeover could jeopardise the continued participation of Fiji’s soldiers in UN peacekeeping missions. Immediately after the coup, the Security Council and the Secretary-General joined the chorus of international condemnation and calls for the reinstatement of the democratically-elected Government. This was followed up on January 8, when Mr Annan’s replacement, Ban Ki-moon, reiterated the call of his predecessor for a return to democracy in Fiji. He was silent on the issue of Fiji’s peacekeepers, however. This is perhaps not surprising. The Security Council, which has the final say on UN peacekeeping missions, does not appear to have warmed to Mr Annan’s idea. What I have heard informally is that the matter was discussed by the Council, but the point was made that it would be inconsistent to treat Fiji differently from other coup-afflicted countries such as Thailand and Pakistan, which have not been prevented from taking part in peacekeeping. I have also heard there could be a UN mission to Fiji later in the year, although UN staff too are waiting to see what comes out of the EPG’s upcoming report to the Pacific Islands Forum. To sum up, the four key international responses to the December coup that are outlined in this article show substantial consistency, and a degree of cooperation. I would venture to suggest there is also a predictability to the way the responses are likely to unfold from here on.

Democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law must be restored in Fiji, and the international community wants the road to that end to be as short and direct as possible. Clear milestones should be identified along the way, with time frames set for their achievement. This is what they mean when they speak of a “roadmap”. Once we have one, and start to follow it, we can expect to see the international responses become progressively more cooperative and helpful.

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