Last week’s suspension of Fiji from the Commonwealth invites the reflection that a world which cannot protect democracy in this friendly island nation cannot secure it anywhere else. A puppet government, declared unlawful by an appellate court earlier in the year, has now been re-invented as a full-blown military dictatorship, with a self-declared mandate to rule for the next five years. It has been busy jailing and deporting journalists, sacking judges, banning NGOs and ensconcing soldiers as censors in newspaper offices. Ironically, this particular dictatorship owes its power, in no small measure, to the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations – united, to the despair of the Fijian people, in their support for the Fijian army.
Fiji, with a population of about 800,000, has suffered four military coups in the past twenty years. The first two were the result of military support for Fijian nationalists furious that democratic elections had brought politicians from the minority Indian community into positions of government power. Their slogan, “Ethnic paramountcy,” (a euphemism for apartheid), was rejected by the courts in the ground breaking Prasad case in 2002, which restored democracy. But in 2006 the military strong man, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, abolished parliament and installed an unelected “interim” administration that was more to his liking. That government was declared unlawful by the Court of Appeal, but last month he arranged for the president to nullify it and to appoint him as effective dictator for the next five years.
Fiji is now in a parlous state. Its constitution has been abrogated, its GDP is in free fall, its judiciary is in the process of replacement by army-approved judges and its media is forced to submit all news stories to military censors. Gatherings of more than 3 people have been banned (unless they are soldiers) and the President of the Law Society was briefly jailed for protesting against the sacking of the judges.
So how does the army come to loom so large in a pacific Pacific island with no external enemies and an economy reliant on tourism and bottled water? The reason is simple: increasingly, over the past 30 years, Fijian soldiers have been the peacekeepers of choice for the United Nations, paid for under assessed contributions to which the US and the UK (as well as other democracies like Germany, Italy, Spain and Canada) are the heaviest contributors. No less than 25,000 Fijian troops have been trained and deployed in that period as “blue berets”, bringing home pay estimated at US300,000million to boost their country’s economy and their own status and power in local society. The skills and the guns they have acquired on UN service they then abuse to overthrow elected governments.
It has taken four coups by the army before the penny has dropped – and then only for Australia, which has demanded that the UN cease to use Fijian troops. The Secretary General’s weak response has been to promise only that their numbers will not be increased, although up to 2,000 will remain on station in Iraq, East Timor, Lebanon and the Sinai. They will keep their weapons – mostly provided by the US– to take home to defend Fiji’s dictator Bainimarama, their master and commander, against the judges and journalists and civil society groups who want a return to democracy. Given the outrageous record of the Fijian army for lawlessness, thuggery and human rights violations in Fiji, it is difficult to understand why the international community should have any truck at all with these unruly soldiers. Removing them from peace keeping operations would humiliate their leader and reduce the support he enjoys from his officers and men.
But the UN is not an organisation that can offer much protection to democracy, given all the member states that do not share democratic values. Fiji has now been suspended by one organisation that does – the Commonwealth, which comprises Britain and 52 of its former colonies, whose Prime Ministers meet at intervals for talk and photo-opportunities with their head, Queen Elizabeth. This is a weak international alliance, its threats do not at present bother the Commodore, any more than they worried Robert Mugabe, although the organisation has the potential to serve as a much more effective protector of free speech and free elections than the UN. This potential has already attracted Mozambique (a former Portuguese Colony) to join whilst Rwanda, a francophone country, has applied for membership.
The Commonwealth could be a useful force for good government, but only if it were galvanized by American leadership. This may hitherto have been unthinkable, but the scars of the war of independence have long healed, and US foreign policy could do with a solid bloc support. The Commonwealth secretariat is desperate for the US to apply, for at least associate membership, so President Obama has the opportunity to rally what .H.G Wells called “the parliamentary peoples” of the world into a union more supportive of democracy than the United Nations, or international law.
International law recognises coup d’états as a matter of necessity, once a new government has established control. But when a democratic government is overthrown, the usurping regime will only be recognised as lawful if it can prove that its rule is positively accepted by the people, rather than quietly suffered. On this basis the military regime in Fiji should be denied recognition by other states, should be unseated at the UN and its contracts should be unenforceable in courts throughout the common law world.
An organisation like a US-led Commonwealth could take steps to bring the Commodore to his senses. What is left of tourism and international business travels on Air Pacific, the Fiji government airline, which is dependent on its landing rights in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Closing these routes would cripple the dictatorship, and might additionally be justified for safety reasons (Air Pacific planes still have ashtrays in their passenger seats). These governments have condemned the latest coup, but none have been prepared to suggest economic sanctions.
Which is good news for Fiji Water, sourced from Viti Levu but owned by Roll International in Los Angeles (proprietor of Franklin Mint, makers without Royal permission of the Princess Diana doll). Obama gave it priceless publicity before his election night address by opening a bottle (it came compliments of the Hay-Adams Hotel) but the company has inevitable connections with Commodore Bainimarama. “We both look forward in (sic) working together” it’s chief operating officer told the army strongman in January, publicly presenting him with a cheque for US$500,000 for his national disaster fund (a charitable organisation, no doubt, although it is Bainimarama who is the real national disaster). Fiji Water’s green credentials have recently been challenged by ecology groups, prompting a response from its senior vice president that might also serve were it to suffer political sanctions: “if Fiji Water just went away, Fiji would lose 3% of its GDP, 20% of its exports and several hundred of its best paid manufacturing jobs. Who’s going to replace that?”.
Well, a democratic government might in due course make a start. Sanctions hurt people, but they helped to bring down apartheid and in Fiji’s case they might help to bring down a dictator. So President Obama should watch what he drinks, and ponder a US takeover of the Commonwealth of Nations whose Prime Ministers would much rather be photographed with him (and Michelle) than with the Queen, and even less with her successor, Charles III.
Geoffrey Robertson QC is author of The Tyrrannicide Brief and Crimes Against Humanity.