Nov 6, 2009

NZ Herald Editorial - Travel Bans pushing buttons in Fiji

4:00AM Friday Nov 06, 2009

Universal international condemnation has been shrugged off by Fiji's military regime and pledges for a return to democracy dishonoured. It is clear, however, that Commodore Frank Bainimarama is irked by the travel ban imposed by New Zealand and Australia on members of his band of usurpers. As much has been underlined by his decision to expel New Zealand's Acting Deputy High Commissioner and Australia's High Commissioner from Suva. Todd Cleaver is the third New Zealand diplomat to be ejected since Commodore Bainimarama seized power in December 2006. With every such incident, the regime becomes more malodorous to the people of this country.

The trigger for the latest flashpoint was the decision in April to extend the travel ban to include judges. This followed Commodore Bainimarama's decision to abrogate the constitution, dismiss the judiciary and impose further measures curbing free speech. The sackings came the day after Fiji's Court of Appeal ruled his regime was illegal. The extension of the travel ban has become a particular irritant because it affects judges who have recently been recruited from Sri Lanka.

Fiji argues that the judiciary should be exempt because its members are independent. That rings hollow. The judges have been hand-picked to, unlike some of their predecessors, kowtow to Commodore Bainimarama. By no stretch of the imagination could they be described as independent. They have signed up to membership of the regime. It is equally senseless of Fiji's Chief Justice, Anthony Gates, to maintain that the New Zealand and Australian Governments are stopping him from nominating credible, well-qualified individuals to serve on the Bench. No judge worthy of the name would wish to be associated with a regime that has removed democratic rights and squashed dissent, attracting pariah status in the process.

According to Fiji, a particular spark for Mr Cleaver's expulsion was the supposed difficulties of one of its judges in getting a visa for her son to get medical treatment at Auckland's Starship hospital. The complaint appears groundless. This country, quite rightly, waived the travel ban on compassionate grounds, and the child was granted entry in good time. For anyone but Commodore Bainimarama, this would surely warrant a vote of thanks to this country, not the expulsion of its top diplomat. His behaviour has, of course, succeeded only in prompting the usual tit-for-tat activity, with the New Zealand Government ordering Fiji's head of mission in Wellington to leave.

Mr Cleaver's expulsion means New Zealanders in Fiji might not be able to obtain consular help if they get into trouble. The high commission staff now numbers just seven, down from 12 last December, and the situation in Fiji, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, is volatile. That provides one reason for New Zealanders planning to visit Fiji to pause. More fundamentally, Fiji's continued abrupt and offhand treatment of this country's diplomats must attract an increasing degree of contempt. That should concern Fiji, which attracts 60 per cent of its tourists from New Zealand and Australia.

In the end, it will be down to the people of Fiji to react. At some point, hopefully before the country's economy is brought to its knees, they must abandon a seemingly deep-seated fatalism and demand the return of their democratic rights. In the meantime, New Zealand can only press for events to move in that direction. At the very least, a well-directed travel ban is, unlike many of the sanctions levelled against Fiji, getting Commodore Bainimarama's attention. It must continue to be enforced.

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