- The Region in Review: International Issues and Events, 2009
The suspension of Fiji’s interim administration from membership in the Pacific Islands Forum (pif) dominated regional affairs in 2009. With Australia taking over as Forum chair after the August 2009 Forum leaders meeting in Cairns, the political isolation of Fiji has had impacts on regional aid, trade, and development.
At the same time, there is increasing debate over the capacity of regional organizations to respond to the challenges of climate change and the global economic crisis, as donor countries work to better coordinate development assistance and Pacific governments extend diplomatic links to new players in the region.
Throughout 2009, the Pacific faced a number of natural disasters and the year ended with Island governments and community organizations raising the profile of vulnerable atoll nations at the Copenhagen climate negotiations. However, most delegates left the Danish capital disappointed, as the summit ended without a legally binding treaty to mandate global action on the adverse effects of climate change.
After Fiji Interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama failed to attend the 2008 Pacific Islands Forum in Niue, Forum leaders held a special meeting in Port Moresby on 27 January 2009 to discuss the restoration of democracy in Fiji. Bainimarama again failed to attend, and regional leaders agreed they would move to suspend Fiji from Forum membership unless “the Fiji Interim Government nominates an election date by 1 May 2009 and that election is held by the end of December 2009” (Forum Secretariat 2009a).
After the January meeting, Bainimarama stated: “The Forum has gone beyond its mandate. The Forum was never meant to determine what type of government members should have. Indeed, the Forum was never to decide when an election in a member state should be held” (Cooney 2009).
Any possibility of an early announcement on elections was dashed when the military reacted to the Fiji Court of Appeal ruling in the case of Qarase v Bainimarama, brought by ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. On 9 April 2009, the court ruled that the 2006 coup was “illegal” and the postcoup creation of an interim administration “invalid.” On 10 April, Fiji President Ratu Sir Josefa Iloilo formally abrogated the 1997 Fiji Constitution. Backed by the military-led interim administration, the president dismissed senior judges and statutory officeholders. He then issued a decree allowing himself to appoint a prime minister, opening the way for the reappointment of Bainimarama and his interim ministers.
Ruling by decree, the interim administration moved to extend emergency regulations that limit public gatherings and allow media censorship. Over the coming months, these powers were used to harass reporters and critics of the regime, including the Methodist Church, whose annual conference was banned (Amnesty International 2009). With serving [End Page 400] military officers taking key public service positions (including naval officer Esala Teleni as police commissioner), domestic critics faced new restrictions that constrained public criticism of the military as well as the right to strike. Opponents of the regime used blogs to send information internationally, as mainstream media faced censorship of any broadcast or publication that, according to President Iloilo, “could cause disorder, promote disaffection or public alarm or undermine the government or state of Fiji” (Gordon 2009).
As the Forum’s May deadline passed, Forum Chair Toke Talagi, premier of Niue, announced on 2 May: “It is with considerable sorrow and disappointment that I confirm the suspension of the current military regime in the Republic of the Fiji Islands, from full participation in the Pacific Islands Forum, with immediate effect from 2 May 2009. . . . This decision does not amount to the expulsion of Fiji, as a nation, from its membership of the Forum. That proposition has not been considered by leaders in their deliberations. As such, the Pacific Islands Forum remains a 16-member body and the Republic of the Fiji Islands continues to be part of the Forum group of nations, albeit with participation of the current regime suspended until further notice” (Talagi 2009).
Fiji was also suspended from the Commonwealth in September after the interim administration failed to meet a Commonwealth deadline of 1 September for committing to rejoin negotiations with the Opposition and to hold...