A cable released by WikiLeaks over the weekend has shown that in 2006 the US pressured Australia and New Zealand to “not rush” a full suite of sanctions on newly installed dictator Frank Bainimarama’s regime in Fiji, for fear of undermining the war effort in Iraq.
On December 5, 2006, the same day that embattled Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase telephoned Australian Prime Minister John Howard to beg unsuccessfully for military intervention, representatives from the US, Australia and New Zealand held a secret video conference to discuss coordinated action in the event the coup d’état by Bainimarama was successful.
Among the sanctions discussed were travel bans on Fijian military officers and their families, “as well as others involved in the coup”, expulsion from the Commonwealth, “immigration eligibility”, a sports ban and removing Fiji as chair of the Pacific Island. All three countries wanted to avoid action that would harm “the lower-end population” of Fiji, with New Zealand announcing it “was not prepared to invoke trade sanctions”.
However, on sanctions that would degrade Fiji’s military machine, the source of the coup, the three countries were more divided.
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Australia was the most gung-ho, with foreign minister Alexander Downer endorsing “suspending defence co-operation”, including defunding a Pacific patrol boat program, expelling Fijian students from Australian military training academies and “urging other countries to impose sanctions”.
New Zealand, geographically reliant on Fiji to project regional power, endorsed “suspending bilateral defence ties, except for maritime patrols aimed at illegal fishing or humanitarian operations such as search-and-rescue missions”.
However, it was when Australia proposed forcing Fiji’s “withdrawal from United Nations peacekeeping operations” that Steven McGann, a senior representative from the US Bureau for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, put a “red line” on removing Fiji from peacekeeping operations.
According to the American cable, “McGann stressed Washington’s concern that parties not rush to remove Fiji’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations, noting the importance of Fiji to UN peacekeeping operations in Baghdad and elsewhere”.
At the time Fiji had over 200 troops and more than 1000 private security contractors serving in Iraq, a substantial international contribution in a war in which the US had few friends, and a massive number for a country of 800,000 people.
In fact, the US was so concerned about protecting the fighting capacity of the Fijian army that it refused to call the situation in Fiji a “coup”. Such nomenclature would have automatically triggered “immediate suspension of all aid under Section 508 of the Foreign Operations Appropriation Act”. Instead, in amazing example of international diplomatic doublespeak, McGann preferred to maintain some “flexibility”, stating that his country “might initially declare that ‘an unlawful or unconstitutional change of government’ had taken place” instead of a coup. This would “ensure that important peacekeeping operations, such as in Baghdad and Darfur, not be hindered”.
The meeting was then interrupted when word was relayed from New Zealand that the coup had been successful.
As of 2011, democracy is yet to return to Fiji, with Frank Bainimarama and his cronies still ruling in Suva.