Waiting on Fiji
13 May 2013|

To see how difficult it is to do normal business with Fiji’s military regime, consider the problem of getting the new Australian High Commissioner into Suva. Wednesday will mark the six-month point in a diplomatic dance in which Suva mixes moments of promise with large doses of denial. The symbolic and the silly intermingle. Important elements of diplomatic engagement are at stake but the shenanigans demonstrate the Bainimarama regime’s recurrent tendency to veer towards the petty and the capricious.

Back on December 15 last year, the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, announced what was welcomed as a diplomatic breakthrough with Fiji. His statement started like this:

Foreign Minister Bob Carr today announced Ms Margaret Twomey as Australia’s High Commissioner to Fiji, ending a three-year hiatus caused by the expulsion of Australia’s previous High Commissioner in 2009. Senator Carr said the decision to restore an Australian High Commissioner to Fiji was an agreed outcome of trilateral talks with Fiji and New Zealand in Sydney in July 2012… [Ms Twomey] is expected to take up her appointment in February 2013.

Let’s look at the series of steps that led up to that announcement and what hasn’t happened since. The Foreign Ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji met in July last year and agreed that it was time to rise above Suva’s previous habit of expelling Oz or Kiwi diplomats whenever the military regime felt offended. With that agreement in hand, negotiations on the Australian to go to Suva began in earnest.

Margaret Twomey was both an obvious and excellent choice by Canberra. If there was any possible mark against her from Suva’s view, it might be that Twomey knew the place and the players too well because of her previous service as deputy High Commissioner. She was in that number two slot in Suva in 2000 when George Speight and some renegade troops stormed Parliament and took Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet hostage. Speight’s coup attempt was the one that ultimately failed; the coup that mattered was staged by Fiji’s military commander, Frank Bainimarama, who imposed martial rule and seized government as he dismissed the President, Ratu Mara. Bainimarama negotiated an end to the siege which gave formal and legal effect to the overthrow of Chaudhry. Bainimarama then imposed his own choice, Laisenia Qarase, as the replacement Prime Minister.

So Margaret Twomey was on the ground in Suva when Bainimarama carried out his first successful coup in 2000 to lay the ground for what eventually became Fiji’s New Order government. She’s now been selected to return to try to restore relations with the New Order regime that imposed itself by a second successful coup in 2006, overthrowing Qarase because he’d fallen out with the Supremo who had first raised him up. You can see how some of the wiser heads in Suva (yes, some still exist) might have paused to consider that Twomey knew them too well.

Nevertheless, Suva gave official agrément to Twomey’s appointment. (Agrément is the formal agreement by a receiving state that it’s prepared to accept a named individual as head of a diplomatic mission.) Obtaining such agrément before an ambassador or high commissioner is despatched to a post (in practice, before a name is public announced) is a firm requirement under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

When Carr put out his statement on December 15, he was acting both with the agrément and the agreement of the Fiji Government. Suva had accepted Twomey’s nomination and this was seen as a sign that the process of diplomatic reconciliation could gather pace in line with the progress towards Fiji’s elections in 2014. Twomey was recalled to Canberra from her then post as Australia’s Ambassador to Russia so she could prepare to be in Suva in February. Now she sits in Canberra and waits.

The argument coming from Fiji is that the regime is angry that Australia continues to impose ‘smart sanctions’ that make it hard for servants of the regime to travel to or via Australia. Canberra argues that it has made the application of the travel ban more flexible and deals with each case individually. But the continuing application of the travel sanction does actually inconvenience the regime, which definitely amounts to a serious affront if you view the world from Suva using the Supremo’s understanding of how things should work.

The anger the regime has felt since the sanctions were imposed in 2006 trumps the interests served by the agreement for the return of the Oz High Commissioner. Not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, Suva has demonstrated its power by forcing Twomey to wait on its pleasure.

Following columns are going to examine the clear need for Australia to engage with Fiji’s New Order regime. But the continuing Suva silliness over the Oz High Commissioner is but one example among many of how difficult this engagement will be.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user john.trif.