Note the uncertainty: even if Fiji were to acquiesce to our demands, Canberra reserves the right to change its mind, and add new hoops for Suva to jump through.
Democracy 101 will get us nowhere
- by:RICHARD HERR and ANTHONY BERGIN
- From:The Australian
- March 05, 201312:00AM
FOREIGN Minister Bob Carr doesn’t expect to lift Australian sanctions against Fiji until 2019, at the earliest. That’s the conclusion to be drawn from the minister’s recent statement outlining our terms for re-engaging Fiji’s government. The terms appear reasonable: they’re ones a first-year political science student might use to define democracy.
The conditions that Carr has listed for Fiji passing his basic democracy course are an independent elections’ office; unrestricted participation by opposition political parties and civil society; freedom of expression, association and the media; and an election so free and fair its results will be acceptable even to the losers. Carr has emphasised that once Fiji’s government achieves all this, Australia will “hopefully lift its targeted sanctions”.
Note the uncertainty: even if Fiji were to acquiesce to our demands, Canberra reserves the right to change its mind, and add new hoops for Suva to jump through. Here we’re open to the charge that we’ve laid against Frank Bainimarama’s government: shifting the goalposts for Fiji’s return to democracy.
Do we apply Carr’s democracy standards and apply sanctions to ASEAN members such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam? And what of China, where muted protests on human rights violations seem linked to our booming resources trade. Perhaps we don’t need countries to meet these standards, if we know they aren’t, in our view, democracies.
Contrast our Foreign Minister’s approach with that offered by US President Barack Obama when he visited Myanmar last November. Obama said that he wasn’t somebody who thought the US “should stand on the sidelines and not get its hands dirty when there’s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country”.
Australia’s position on Fiji appears to be that we shouldn’t get involved until after Fiji no longer needs our help or encouragement. Lecturing Fiji on democracy from the sidelines isn’t helpful: it creates a diplomatic impasse where we win only if Fiji backs down.
That’s been the key weakness in our policy towards Fiji since the 2006 coup. We’ve never provided for graduated disengagement from sanctions, as US President Barack Obama supported when he visited Burma.
There’s little chance Fiji will meet all of the democracy criteria set out by Carr. If Fiji doesn’t score an A grade on its election next year, then the only grade we’ll give will be an F. So the region’s dunce will attract our sanctions until Fiji’s next election in 2019. There’s to be no tutorial assistance or mentoring, no chance of a supplementary exam. That’s Fiji’s lot in our democracy 101 course. No wonder Fiji is enrolling in another class somewhere to the north of Australia.
Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin are co-authors of Our Near Abroad: Australia and Pacific Islands Regionalism, Australian Strategic Policy Institute