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Fiji looks north to China as human rights head south at home

Yesterday’s rapprochement between Fiji, Australia and New Zealand, with the re-establishment of diplomatic ties at High Commissioner level, needs to be seen in the context of other recent events in Fiji’s…

Commodore Frank Bainimarama could learn a lot from China about quashing human rights. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Yesterday’s rapprochement between Fiji, Australia and New Zealand, with the re-establishment of diplomatic ties at High Commissioner level, needs to be seen in the context of other recent events in Fiji’s erratic military dictatorship.

Last Friday, activist Akuila Yabaki and the Citizens Constitutional Forum, a pro-democracy NGO he runs in Fiji, fronted the High Court in Suva charged with contempt of court. Their crime was an article in the April 2012 edition of Tutaka, their quarterly newsletter entitled “Rule of Law Lost”. As the title suggests, it was argued in the article that there was no rule of law in Fiji. That upset the Fijian Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, and contempt charges were laid.

Yabaki and the CCF will be back in court on October 5 to answer the charges.

The Fijian regime’s strategy is to tie up the resources of troublesome civil society organisations in litigation, to limit their efficacy locally and internationally. Yabaki is a seasoned international campaigner, and the Pacific representative of the London-based World Association for Christian Communication.

Yabaki is also a minister of the Methodist Church, although he and the Church have had their differences over the years. For four years, the Methodist Church has been fighting for the right to simply assemble, and its officers, the Rev Ame Tugaue and General Secretary, the Rev Tuikilakila Waqairatu, have been the subject of long running harassment by the regime.

Human rights activist Akuila Yabaki. John Harrison

Government bans on the Methodist Church have hamstrung the organisation, whose quasi-democratic polity allows all clergy, and an equal number of lay people, a voice in decision-making at the annual conference. But the bans are a measure of the anxiety within the regime, given that the Fijian Methodist Church, the dominant religious organisation in Fiji, has a reputation for quiescence among its partner churches throughout the Pacific: more hymn-singing mat-makers than street marching activists.

Earlier this month the general secretary of Oceania Football Confederation, Tai Nicholas pleaded guilty to contempt of court for a suggestion published in The Fiji Times that there was no judiciary in Fiji.

Following the Nicholas case, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum asserted: “Fiji has a fully operational, independent, impartial and transparent judiciary. It is the duty of the Attorney-General to guarantee that all appropriate measures are taken to ensure that the authority and independence of the judiciary is not undermined in any way, including by any baseless comments."

“We have also seen some individuals and groups who have sought to undermine the judiciary and administration of justice for their own political and/or personal agendas. We will be equally vigilant with such persons and groups, both local and foreign.”

Whether Justice William Calanchini, a labour lawyer who is an Australian citizen, and a former major in the Australian Army Reserve, cuts Yabaki any slack remains to be seen.

The CCF is a long standing civil rights organisation, with roots in the post-1987 coup. In 1996 it registered as a charitable trust. Its funding has come at various times from the European Union and the US State Department. Yabaki is a survivor in coup-prone Fiji, and last time I spoke to him, he was confident that he had a pipeline to the regime’s strongman, Frank Bainimarama. It’s not clear whether this is still the case.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr visited Fiji in April as part of a Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group assessing Fiji’s progress towards democracy. Carr’s visit – which did not include a meeting with Bainimarama – was an attempt to rebuild Australia’s relationship with Fiji.

Carr’s predecessor Kevin Rudd had been uncompromising in his approach to the Fijians. And the Fijians returned fire, accusing Rudd of “prejudice” against them. The prosecution/persecution of Yabaki will not win Fiji any friends in the Australian policy community, nor the NGO sector, where he is widely known.

For human rights advocates in Australasia, Europe and the US, going in hard on human rights abuses and the rule of law in Fiji risks pushing Fiji further towards China, a policy described as “looking north”.

China is already muscling up in the South China Sea, agitating Vietnam and the Philippines. In the past week, China has moved to strengthen its hold on the disputed islands of Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha, drawing protests from Japan, and the Philippines. This cannot have escaped Australian diplomats' notice.

Yesterday Bob Carr flagged that progress had been made towards a 2014 election, that travel bans on non-military officials had been eased, but concerns about human rights remained.

Dropping the contempt charges against Akuila Yabaki would be a sign of real progress, and should bring Australia and Fiji closer together.