13 Sep 2013

NZ Minister defends easing of sanctions on Fiji

5:09 pm on 13 September 2013

New Zealand has announced a further easing of sanctions on Fiji in return for what it sees as progress towards elections next year.

Travel bans will remain in place for those in the Fiji military or the regime, but New Zealand's Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, says he is formalising the lifting of sporting sanctions, which have been loosely applied since 2006.

The New Zealand government will also reinstate ten postgraduate scholarships for students from Fiji.

The announcement comes despite regime opponents saying the government of Frank Bainimarama is still repressive.

But New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully says it is clear Fiji is taking the standard steps towards free and fair elections.

MURRAY McCULLY: My understanding is that many people in Fiji think that holding elections is the big-picture objective here. While there will be no doubt those who are critical of the New Zealand decision, there'll be some debate about the constitution that's been established and there'll be general debate about the way forward, we believe that the big-picture objective here of holding elections in Fiji during 2014, which is what the New Zealand government and the international community have been calling for, is something that we should support. And I believe if you look at the steps that are being taken so far and the ones that are being planned we might miss an opportunity.

SUSIE FERGUSON: When did you last speak with the Coalition on Human Rights, for example, about this, to get their take on whether this could be the right time, whether this may be a useful thing to do at this stage?

MM: Look, I don't take my advice from NGOs. I certainly weigh up the opinions that come from others.

SF: Surely you canvas opinion, though, don't you?

MM: My advice comes from the ministry of foreign affairs in New Zealand. And, as you say, we're informed by the judgements of others, but finally I put recommendations to our cabinet based on the advice from my ministry.

SF: This softening of the line on Fiji has been coming from New Zealand, also from Australia for some time now. Is this something that has been perhaps taken as a catalyst, the Australian election?

MM: No, not at all. This is obviously a matter we've discussed with Australia, both the outgoing government and the incoming government.

SF: It's interesting timing, though, don't you think, that the opposition spokesperson who's now likely to be the actual foreign minister was making some very positive sounds about Fiji during the election campaign, and of course, the Abbott government just came in a few days ago.

MM: Well, you'd need to talk to the Australian government about their own views. All I can say to you is that we've been on this pathway for quite some time. The decision to make the announcement this week was one that was driven mostly by my own travel timetable at the moment, to be frank. And I'm comfortable that we've consulted with all of the partners that we should. And to the extent that there have been some areas which New Zealand and Australia have been out of synch, because Australia hasn't had the sporting sanctions as part of their package of measures. It brings the two countries into closer alignment.

SF: Do you feel that this significant step closer to Fiji is going to be a boost to Frank Bainimarama, that you're effectively giving him a clap on the back?

MM: No, I think, as I say, that those in Fiji who are critical of the decision New Zealand has made. And I'm not going to speculate as to how the regime sees the announcements I've made today. I'm sure there'll be a variety of views there. We've tried to make our decisions based on our assessment and the assessment of our officials as to what's going to provide the best chance of free and fair elections in Fiji in 2014.

SF: And what could reverse that? What could happen in Fiji that you would deem unacceptable that would cause you to restore sanctions and withdraw any assistance?

MM: The main body of sanctions still apply, of course, because they attach to individuals in the military and in the regime itself.

SF: Yes, but where is your line in the sand to reverse what you've announced today?

MM: We don't work with lines in the sand in foreign policy, we try and make measured and considered judgements, and that's what we've done on this occasion.

SF: But what would you deem to be unacceptable?

MM: I'm not going to speculate about hypothetical issues. What I'm saying is that we've made our judgement based on the developments we've observed in recent months, and on the work that's been done by one of our senior electoral officials who has been in Fiji as part of the needs assessment.