Fiji challenge puts forum at risk of becoming a joke

With or without Punch, the show must go on.

Fiji's Commodore Frank Bainimarama is boycotting the special meeting of Pacific Island Forum leaders in Port Moresby next week.

However, the snub simply offers added reason for the leaders of the 15 other member states to take long overdue disciplinary action against Fiji in his absence.

If forum leaders defer a decision on suspension, the 37-year-old regional grouping will be a laughing stock.

Indeed, with the Commonwealth's ministerial action group next month set to reconfirm Fiji's suspension from that umbrella organisation's meetings, any failure by forum leaders to match the Commonwealth's position will be doubly embarrassing.

Suspension will apply only to leaders' and ministerial meetings, thereby enabling the forum's secretariat, which is based in Suva, to continue functioning.

Whether suspension will make a blind bit of difference to what is going on in Fiji is highly debatable.

But Mr Bainimarama's truculence has forced the forum's hand. Or, at least, it should do.

Despite the imperative to act, no-one would bet serious money on the leaders not fudging things and giving Fiji one last chance.

The noises coming out of some Pacific island capitals this week indicate as much. With New Zealand and Australia in the vanguard of countries seeking action, Tuesday's meeting amounts to the first test of John Key's persuasive powers in a foreign policy context.

Since Mr Bainimarama marched out of the Suva military barracks in December 2006 and mounted Fiji's fourth coup in the space of just two decades, he has made promises (including one to the forum in person) of a return to democracy and free elections.

Every time, he has subsequently gone on to bluster, prevaricate, delay, postpone and ultimately go back on his word.

He has exploited internal forum politics, doing his best to provoke a split which has smaller island states at odds with Australia and New Zealand.

But Fiji's interim prime minister - he has been "interim" for two years - may have miscalculated this time by ruling out going to the Papua New Guinea capital and sending a special envoy in his place.

No-one is treating Mr Bainimarama's reason for not going to Port Moresby - that the death and devastation caused by recent floods require he stay at home - at face value.

Had he gone, he might have engendered some sympathy, given the floods.

In Papua New Guinea, the no-show is being treated as a slap in the face for Prime Minister Michael Somare, who has done his utmost to mediate between his country's Melanesian ally and New Zealand and Australia.

The slight to Mr Somare might tip the balance.

For the stakes are high: Mr Bainimarama's continued trifling with the forum has ratcheted things up to the point where what remains of the forum's credibility is now very much on the line.

If the forum leaders cannot reach agreement on Tuesday, Mr Bainimarama will have racked up a huge victory. Failure to discipline Fiji would render the forum's Biketawa Declaration on good governance as worthless.

It would leave Mr Key and Kevin Rudd, his Australian counterpart, looking weak and ineffective. However, if the pair complained too profusely in public about such an outcome, they would be playing into Mr Bainimarama's hands.

The forum would be split. He would have made the organisation essentially irrelevant. That cannot be allowed to happen.

But this is the first time in its history that the forum, which shuns conflict, has had to discipline a member - and a highly influential one at that.

If forum leaders stop short of immediate suspension and give Mr Bainimarama one last chance to redeem himself, then any compromise would need to set a deadline for him to start a dialogue with Fiji's political players and parties which would lead inexorably to agreement on how elections would be run and a fixed date by when they should have taken place.

Such a compromise would allow forum leaders to save some face and leave Mr Bainimarama having to choose between a return to democracy or pariah status.

More than likely, he would choose the latter. The stalemate would continue.

That reality has prompted growing calls - notably from academics and even former diplomats - for a fresh approach to what seems an intractable problem.

There has been a growing feeling in such quarters that the so-called "smart" sanctions - particularly the travel bans on those close to the regime - have been applied too indiscriminately, catching innocent relatives.

On top of that, New Zealand is accused of operating a double standard by picking on Fiji but turning a blind eye when dealing with autocratic regimes elsewhere.

Moreover, there is little point in holding elections in the short term if the net result is weak, divided and corrupt government which simply restarts the whole unfortunate cycle of coups again.

All of this has been cheerfully noted by the new National Government in Wellington, with Foreign Minister Murray McCully holding out an olive branch to Suva soon after taking office.

A deliberate gesture was made in granting transit visas to players in Fiji's under-20 football team to travel through Auckland to Tahiti in early December - a departure from Labour's practice of blocking such requests under the sports sanctions applied post-coup.

Mr McCully subsequently wrote to Mr Bainimarama saying National was intent on improving relations with Fiji and looked forward to progressively relaxing sanctions, contingent on Suva putting forward a credible timetable towards elections with the backing of political "stakeholders" in Fiji.

Clearly, Mr McCully was looking at ending New Zealand's sporting sanctions, which were iniquitous in their application by virtue of a deliberate loophole allowing the Fiji rugby sevens to play in the International Rugby Board's Wellington tournament.

The gestures were ignored, however. Instead, New Zealand was on the receiving end of ultimatums from Fiji that a visa be granted to George Nacewa, the son of a senior official in Suva, so he could finish his studies at Massey University.

Those demands were accompanied by threats to expel New Zealand's acting high commissioner.

With Wellington refusing to grant a visa, the threat was carried out, prompting the necessary retaliatory ejection of Fiji's diplomatic representative from New Zealand.

This illustrates the difficulties in dealing with Mr Bainimarama.

Any flagging of a more conciliatory stance towards his regime gets rebuffed.

It is all very well to argue for a fresh approach. Until Mr Bainimarama is willing to return to the barracks - something of which he has shown no sign - it would all come to nothing.

In the meantime, he continues to inordinately tax the patience of friend and foe alike.

Just how much that patience has been exhausted will be able to be judged from what kind of timetable Tuesday's meeting puts on Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum.

-John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.


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