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Hard line on Fiji may be easing

Sydney Morning Herald - September 8, 2011

Dan Oakes, Auckland Fiji's stint as a pariah nation could be drawing to a close, as New Zealand Prime Minister John Key hinted at a softening of the Australian and New Zealand hard line against the island's military regime.

Speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland yesterday, Mr Key appeared to back away from previous demands by the two regional powers that military leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama return Fiji to democracy immediately.

Fiji was suspended from the forum and the Commonwealth after Commodore Bainimarama seized power in a coup in 2006. His regime has since been accused of human rights abuses against opposition groups. Advertisement: Story continues below

Questioned about Fiji's outcast status during a joint press conference with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Mr Key appeared to drop demands of an immediate return to democracy, instead cautiously endorsing Commodore Bainimarama's deadline of 2014 for free and fair elections.

"It's my view that the consensus would be of [Pacific] leaders that this time they wouldn't want to see Fiji re-admitted back into the forum unless they demonstrated that they are on a pathway to democracy and the holding of those elections in 2014 as promised," Mr Key said.

"We'd... expect to see a demonstrated commitment that he is actually going to hold those elections.

"And from New Zealand's perspective, we've made it quite clear that we're happy to give both financial and human resources to support that process.

"We desperately want to see democracy in Fiji, and for Fijians to be economically prosperous and all of the advice we have at the moment is that the coup is having quite a damaging effect, not only the economy, but seeing more and more Fijians slipping into poverty."

Mr Key said some island leaders had raised concerns about Fiji's suspension from the forum at a meeting on Tuesday night, but that there would not be a vote on re-admitting Fiji because it is "not one of the agenda items that we are considering".

Several leaders from forum nations met Commodore Bainimarama last week in Fiji and co-signed a communique calling for there to be more acknowledgement of Fiji's progress towards democracy and prosperity.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Julia Gillard last night denied the Pacific Islands Forum had softened its approach to Fiji, saying Australia's view on the issue was clear. "There must be return to democracy in Fiji as soon as possible," he said.

Kiribati President Anote Tong told reporters yesterday that he would fight to have Fiji reinstated, describing the island nation as a "bad young boy", who is nonetheless part of the Pacific family.

The Lowy Institute's Jenny Hayward-Jones in Auckland for the forum described Mr Key's comments as a "marked shift" that acknowledged the desire among other Pacific nations to see Fiji return to the fold, but that it was still uncertain whether Commodore Bainimarama would stick to his 2014 commitment.

"John Key has qualified his statement by saying Fiji had to demonstrate it was on a pathway to democracy in 2014," Ms Hayward-Jones said.

"There are few markers the Fiji government can point to in order to prove this and at the moment it seems unlikely that Bainimarama will feel comfortable engaging with all political leaders in Fiji, which seems to be a prerequisite for the forum's support for the 2014 timetable."

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