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Hughes, Bob --- "Commentary on South Pacific Countries 2006" [2007] NZYbkIntLaw 16; (2007) 4 New Zealand Yearbook of International Law 295


Bob Hughes[∗]

I. Introduction

The year 2006 was characterized by major social and political conflict in some of the larger countries in the South Pacific region. There was a military coup in Fiji Islands, civil riots in Tonga, and rioting, continuing unrest and political instability in Solomon Islands. These developments clearly provide further support for those who hold grave concerns about the instability of the region in general as well as doubts about the sustainability of post-independence Western systems of law and government.

II. Elections

Both Fiji Islands and Solomon islands underwent elections for their national governments during the year. In Fiji Islands the election saw the return of the previously governing SDL party[1] in coalition with various other parties.

In Solomon Islands the election returned a government led by Snyder Rini, the former Minister of Education. This in turn provoked widespread civil riots in the capital of Honiara with major damage and looting occurring there. Rini resigned and a new government led by Manasseh Sogavare was established.

III. Free Trade Agreement with Australia and New Zealand

In October 2006 it was announced that the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat would engage a consultant to look at the impact of a trading arrangement between Pacific Island countries with Australia and New Zealand. The major purpose of the study appeared to be to prepare for the possibility of a free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand which, it seems, was only likely to come into force under the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER).[2]

According to the Forum Secretariat, if a Free Trade Agreement was established with Australia and New Zealand, then it would replace the existing South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Co-operation Agreement (SPARTECA).[3] SPARTECA is a non-reciprocal trade agreement under which Australia and New Zealand offer duty free and unrestricted or concessional access for all products originating from Pacific Island countries. The agreement was subject to considerable limitations relating to the movement of goods from Pacific countries to their larger trading partners.

IV. The Pacific Plan

The implementation of the Pacific Plan was a predominant concern for Forum member countries throughout 2006. As previously reported the Pacific Plan purports to set a new vision for the Pacific region. It targets the creation of circumstances, economic and otherwise, under which peoples of the region might be able to lead free and worthwhile lives. It also seeks to strengthen regional co-operation by pooling resources and aligning policies between participant countries. The plan identifies four broad objective areas, namely: economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security.

There were calls by some groups, particularly regional civil society groups, for higher levels of engagement between the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and civil society groups on the Plan and its implementation. Their concern was that whilst there had been some ‘dialogue’, civil society groups want to be treated as equal partners in the plan, including engagement at the ministerial level. The Forum Secretariat, for its part, has argued that civil society groups already have greater engagement through the existing Forum processes.

V. Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA)

PICTA[4] is a regional trade agreement between 14 Pacific Island countries. PICTA has been ratified by all member countries of the Pacific Islands Forum, except Tuvalu. Unfortunately further delays were experienced in the enactment of domestic legislations to formalise and facilitate the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) in a number of Forum Island Countries (FICs).

The Forum Secretariat raised concerns during the year that these delays were creating a significant threat to the regional trade arrangement. In October 2006 countries other than Cook Islands, Fiji and Samoa, were given until January 2007 to complete the legislation requirements to meet PICTA demands. It appears that the delays were, to some extent, occasioned by the concerns which some countries have had about issues of revenue security in the form of duties and tariffs. They would be forced to seek alternatives to their predominant reliance on these forms of revenue derivation.

The Forum Secretariat also indicated that discussions had taken place relating to the inclusion of French Pacific territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the regional trade agreement. It seems probable that New Caledonia will join PICTA toward the end of 2006 or early in 2007.

VI. Joint Commercial Commission

In October 2006 there was an indication that Pacific Island countries wanted to renew their commercial facilitation relationship with the United States. This is pursuant to the Joint Commercial Commission (JCC), the objective of which is to promote mutually beneficial commercial and economic relations between the United States and the Pacific Island countries.

Implementation of the Commission had, until now, largely stalled. JCC was proposed by President George Bush (Senior) at the United States-Pacific Islands Summit held in October 1990 at the East-West Centre, Honolulu, Hawaii. Three years later, a memorandum of understanding establishing the JCC between the USA and the then 13 independent Pacific Island nations was signed. A high level visit to Washington to further discuss the JCC was proposed, although this does not yet appear to have taken place. The USA had indicated a willingness to discuss the JCC further with Pacific Island countries, commencing with the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Nadi, Fiji Islands, in October 2006.

VII. Fiji Islands

On 5 December 2006 Fiji Islands underwent its fourth coup (including the attempted coup led by George Speight in 2000). This was a military coup,

which the military preferred to call a “clean up campaign”.[5]

In the second half of the year, already existing tensions between the Royal Fiji Military Forces and the Qarase government in Fiji Islands were exacerbated with the Commander of the forces, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, demanding the resignation of the government if it did not comply with his demands in relation to the remedying of allegedly corrupt government practices and the abandonment of the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill (the Reconciliation Bill),[6] the Qoliqoli Bill[7] and some associated legislation.

The Reconciliation Bill was challenged by the military primarily on the basis that it might have led to the granting of pardons or amnesty to some parties who were participants in the Speight-led coup of 2000. Curiously the amnesty provisions in the bill were withdrawn by the government in October but the fact was not made known to the public. The Qoliqoli Bill purported to protect the traditional fishing rights of the indigenous Fijian people. It had been subject to significant objection from those other than the military. The military’s position seemed to be that the bill would only create conflict and further division in the country between indigenous Fijians and other ethnic groups.

Various other demands, including the resignation of Qarase’s government, the removal of the Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes and the termination of the Police Tactical Response Group, were added to this list by the military leader in the latter stages of the dispute. The Commodore’s statements and those of his subordinates during October and November contained more frequent threats of removal of the Qarase government by force if its resignation was not forthcoming, although soon after each such statement, steps were taken to assure the population that there would be no military-led coup in the country.

Late in November there was an attempt by the New Zealand government to mediate the dispute by facilitating talks in New Zealand between Qarase and Bainimarama. There were conflicting views as to the outcome of the talks. According to Prime Ministers Clarke (NZ) and Qarase (FI) a solution had been reached. According to Bainimarama that was not so. Qarase purported to make a number of concessions to the military’s demands, including the withdrawal of the legislation mentioned above to which the military had taken objection. Bainimarama’s response was merely to insist that his full list of demands, including resignation, be met.

The military moved to take control of the government and the executive around the beginning of December and announced that it was in effective control on the evening of 4 December. Bainimarama curiously claimed to have taken over the executive powers of the President owing to the President’s inability to exercise such powers and purported to assert that the 1997 constitution remains in force despite the usurpation by the military of executive and governmental authority. The coup has led to wide international condemnation and will likely result in the suspension of Fiji from the Commonwealth.

VIII. Tonga

The Crown Prince (Tupou’toa), Siasosi Tāufaʻāhau Tupoulahi, was installed as King George Tupou V on 11 September 2006, after the death of his Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga on 10 September 2006. The new king’s formal coronation will take place at some future time.

There has long been speculation that the death of the King would act as a major catalyst to large-scale political reform advocated by the Democracy Movement in Tonga for many years. On 16 November widespread rioting broke out in the capital of Nuku’alofa with nearly 80 percent of the town centre buildings destroyed. Eight people were killed. The riots were precipitated by the failure of the parliament to consider or enact democratic reforms to the parliamentary system, particularly those relating to an expanded elective representation for the Assembly and the election of the Prime Minister from the Assembly.

Troops and police from Australia and New Zealand were sent to Tonga a short time later in order to restore peace and order. The irony of the situation appeared to be that the King had agreed to the principles of reform prior to the rioting but this fact was not publicized owing to the fact that some of the finer details remained to be agreed.

IX. Solomon Islands

Tension arose in the second half of the year between the Australian and the newly elected Solomon Island government headed by Manasseh Sogavare. As noted above, Sogavare took office as Prime Minister after the resignation of Snyder Rini, the first to hold the post after the mid 2006 elections. Rini’s appointment as prime minister brought about riots in the capital of Honiara and the burning down of areas including the Chinatown district. The Chinese population was targeted on the assumption that certain Chinese had been engaged in corrupt practices supporting Rini and some of his colleagues. The forces of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) with newly arriving reinforcements, particularly from Australia, were instrumental in restoring order.

However, the Sogavare government soon fell into dispute with the Australian government, in particular over the role of RAMSI, especially when two ministers appointed by Sogavare were gaoled for alleged incitement of the riots. When Sogavare purported to establish an Independent Commission of Inquiry into the riots, the Australian government protested that this was an attempt to avert the consequences of court proceedings against the two gaoled ministers. Sogavare objected to the perceived actions of Australian High Commissioner Coles for alleged interference in the internal processes of Solomon Islands government and he was then ejected from the country. In retaliation the Australian government banned visits by Solomon Islands ministers to Australia.

This was followed by the strange affair arising from the attempted appointment by Sogavare of an Australian lawyer, Julian Moti, as Attorney General of Solomon Islands. This followed the dismissal of the previous Attorney General, apparently for providing advice adverse to Sogavare’s attempt to set up the Commission of Inquiry. Moti, an Indo Fijian by birth, had been an Australian resident for some years and allegedly a friend of Prime Minister Sogavare.

The Australian government issued charges against Moti arising from allegations that he had committed certain child sexual offences in Vanuatu in 1997. Moti had been charged in Vanuatu and once committed to trial although the committal was overturned by the Court of Appeal of Vanuatu on technical grounds. He then appeared for committal before a different magistrate on further charges and the proceedings were dismissed.

After the issuing of charges, Moti was arrested by Papua New Guinea police in Port Moresby when he was in transit. This was at the instance of the Australia government, which intended to seek his deportation to face the above charges. He was granted bail, allegedly through the intervention of a PNG minister. He failed duly to appear when required and it transpired that he had taken shelter in the Solomon Islands High Commission in Port Moresby. After a week he was flown by a PNG military airplane back to the Solomon Islands where he was arrested by local police and RAMSI personnel for entering the country without a passport.

Sogavare alleged impropriety on the part of the Australian government in the arrest saying that the charges against Moti were politically motivated. He indicated that he intended to persist with his appointment of Moti as Attorney-General. Furthermore he claimed the need to downscale the RAMSI operation and to have it reviewed by the Forum. He was supported in the latter claim by the Prime Ministers of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. However, at the Forum Leaders’ meeting in Nadi in October, it was agreed that there be a review of RAMSI but not along the lines sought by the Solomon Islands Prime Minister. The appointment of Moti as Attorney General by the Solomon Islands government and the pursuit of the sex offences charges laid against him by the Australian government, including the side issue of deportation to face charges, remain ongoing issues of contention affecting the relations between Solomon Islands and Australian governments.

[∗] Dean, Faculty of Arts and Law, University of the South Pacific.

[1] Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua Party.

[2] Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, opened for signature 18 August 2001, [2004] ATS 10 (entered into force 3 October 2002).

[3] South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Co-operation Agreement, opened for signature 14 July 1980, [1982] ATS 31 (entered into force 1 January 1981).

[4] Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement, opened for signature 18 August 2001 (entered into force 13 April 2003).

[5] Serafim Qalo and Reijeli Kikau, ‘Fiji Army Sets New Deadline’ The Fiji Times, 22 November 2006, available at Fiji Times On-Line, < aspx?:d=52091> (last accessed 18 May 2007).

[6] Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill 2005 (Fiji Islands).

[7] Qoliqoli Bill 2006 (Fiji Islands).

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