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Chaudhry Address To CMAG

Address To The Commonwealth Ministers Action Group (CMAG)

By Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry,
Republic Of Fiji Islands


New York
Friday 15th September, 2000


It gives me great pleasure to be standing before you today and I would like to thank you all, most sincerely, for permitting me to make this submission on behalf of the People's Coalition Government of Fiji.

I wish to thank you for the urgency with which you responded to the Fiji crisis and for sending to Fiji your Secretary General, Don McKinnon. His visit during our captivity was a source of great encouragement to us at that time. So too was the subsequent mission by the CMAG. Both visits demonstrated the unambiguous concern of the Commonwealth about the crisis and its commitment to helping find a solution. For this, we thank you.

I will be frank with you. This occasion is not an easy one for me. I am acutely aware of what is at stake for my country, its people, and future generations. Your deliberations on the crisis will determine their futures. They will shape the future of democracy, ethnic relations, human rights, peace and stability in Fiji and in the Pacific region for many years to come. They will ultimately determine how history will record the Commonwealth response to the crisis. And, more seriously, the decisions you take will determine whether or not an act of international terrorism and assault on democracy are tacitly legitimised.

Over the past month my colleagues and I have been traveling in the Pacific, Asia and Europe holding discussions on the Fiji crisis. It has been an opportunity for candid discussions and constructive dialogue. It has also given me time for some serious reflection on what I believe to be the fundamental values underlying our relationships as member states of the Commonwealth of Nations and the global community. I have taken great heart from revisiting some of the golden principles of instrumental instruments like the Commonwealth's Harare Declaration. They have reminded me of just how far the Commonwealth has moved, over the last decade, towards refining and elevating its prescriptive values of peace, governance, justice and indeed humanity for all its member states.

I do not intend to revisit the full horror of what has taken place in our country over the past four months. Following our release from captivity after 56 days, it took a while for me to absorb the magnitude and the orchestrated nature of the violence that had been unleashed upon our community by those backing the terrorists. Having been denied any information about what events in the country while we were held hostage, this revelation came as a great shock.

I know many of you are well aware of these events, and I attach a number of documents that I hope will assist you. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a number of key features of the crisis that I believe are relevant to your deliberations, and to outline the main ingredients of what we in the elected People's Coalition Government believe to be the most effective way ahead. It is a formula that is in keeping with the spirit and intentions of the Harare Declaration and the Commonwealth’s Millbrook Action Programme set in place to uphold its principles.

In my view it is critical here that we do not lose sight of the fundamental values enshrined in the Harare Declaration and to which Commonwealth member states have a shared commitment. The central tenet of the Declaration is a commitment to democracy and constitutional government. It spells out in detail the sanctity of human rights and non-discrimination. It states that:

We believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives;

We recognize racial prejudice and intolerance as a dangerous sickness and a threat to healthy development, and racial discrimination as an unmitigated evil;

We oppose all forms of racial oppression, and we are committed to the principles of human dignity and equality.

The Commonwealth’s decision to establish a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Declaration was with the specific intention of dealing with “serious or persistent violations of the principles contained in that Declaration”. Such violations included the “unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government”.

In accordance with its charter, the CMAG is charged with recommending steps to ensure the “speedy restoration of democracy and constitutional rule”. It has itself been made responsible for determining its terms of reference and modus operandi in order to respond to and remedy violations of the Harare Declaration.

In turn, the Millbrook Action Programme was specifically set in place to advance and implement the fundamental political values of the Harare Declaration. This includes the provision of technical assistance to initiate and strengthen programmes of democratization including the strengthening of electoral processes, the rule of law and support for good government.

Significantly, the Programme gives the participating CMAG Ministers the discretion and responsibility to devise and prescribe the process and programme for achieving democratization in a Commonwealth member state. This responsibility to define procedures and terms of engagement by the Commonwealth is clearly intended to be used judiciously. The overriding purpose is to ensure that the most effective response to remedy a violation of the Declaration is achieved by the Commonwealth.

It is very evident that the overthrow of parliamentary democracy by terrorists in Fiji in May this year constituted a ‘serious’, indeed fundamental, violation of the Harare Declaration.

A pivotal element of this violation was the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution. As you may be aware, the Constitution is a product of the principles that are now formalized in the Millbrook Programme. It represents the collective engagement by the Commonwealth and member states such as Australia, New Zealand, and the UK in the aftermath of the 1987 coup. Through contact missions, substantial technical assistance and financial support, the Commonwealth actively promoted the return to democracy in Fiji in accordance with its Harare Declaration.

In particular, the Commonwealth and its member states supported the constitution review process having condemned the unilaterally imposed and racially biased 1990 Constitution. Indeed, the principles of the Harare Declaration laid the foundations for the 1997 Constitution. So in many respects, Fiji’s Constitution is the collective product of the Commonwealth.

The overthrow of the elected government in May, the abrogation of the Constitution, the setting up of a military-appointed interim administration, and the process of constitutional review now imposed by the administration, together represent a clear subversion of this process. It constitutes a derailment of the democratization process supported and endorsed by the Commonwealth and the international community.

Within Fiji itself, the Constitution received an exceptional endorsement. It was unanimously passed by both Houses of Parliament, endorsed by the Great Council of Chiefs, and approved, after nationwide consultations and participation, by the widest possible range of religious groups, ethnic communities and other civil society organizations. The process was singularly inclusive and participatory. As a result, there is a special sense of ownership of the Constitution by Fiji’s people.

Without doubt, the Constitution is a source of great pride for our people, and commendation by the international community, in view of its exemplary Bill of Rights, entrenched protection of indigenous interests and its unique provisions for multi-party government in a multi-ethnic society.

A particular feature of the constitutional review process was to protect and enhance the rights and interests of indigenous Fijians. This was achieved in a number of ways. In all matters relating to the governance and land rights of indigenous Fijians, the Constitution empowers the traditional chiefs with a special veto. Indigenous Fijians also enjoy a guaranteed numerical supremacy in both Houses of Parliament and their Council of Chiefs has sole discretion over the appointment of Head of State.

Moreover, the Compact of the Constitution establishes that in the event that the interests of different ethnic communities do not coincide, the interests of indigenous Fijian community take precedence. The Compact also endorses the ownership of Fijian land according to Fijian custom and the Constitution provides for affirmative action on behalf of indigenous Fijians in areas of disadvantage such as commerce.

The 1999 elections gave the People's Coalition a decisive mandate to govern; and despite the recent criticisms of Fiji's alternative vote electoral system, the outcome would have not have been substantially different under the traditional first past the post or even a proportional representation system. The People's Coalition would still have secured a handsome victory and a clear majority of votes amongst both the communities.

Now, as a result of terrorist actions, the results of the 1999 general elections have been reversed. The interim government is mainly composed of members and supporters of the defeated SVT party.

Most importantly, the 1999 elections represented a victory of the ordinary people our country - the poor and the economically marginalised of all communities. It was a victory for the majority of hardworking honest people who recognised the urgent need for a clean and accountable government that was free of corruption. The elections signaled a resounding rejection of the former SVT Government led by 1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka and tainted by successive corruption scandals. They produced an overwhelming endorsement of the People's Coalition platform of poverty alleviation, worker rights and social justice.

In our 12 months in office, we worked tirelessly to be true to our promises to the people. We took a number of poverty alleviation measures including the removal of Value Added Tax on essential food items, and a major boost to the educational and health budgets. We set up a Commission of Enquiry into Corruption and, consistent with the spirit of affirmative action for indigenous Fijians in the Constitution, we embarked on programmes in the commerce, education and tourism sectors.

We took the government to the people by holding Cabinet in remote interior and outer island areas in order to identify the needs of the rural and especially indigenous Fijian communities. We instigated an integrated village development scheme designed to improve living conditions, health and educational standards, and electricity, water and sanitation services in every indigenous Fijian village in the country. This initiative was a first for Fiji despite 29 years of Fijian-led governments.

I mention the elections and our year in government not out of self-indulgence or nostalgia, but because I believe it shows how the crisis of May 19th is about much more than the armed overthrow of parliamentary democracy and constitutional government, serious though this undoubtedly is. The actions of George Speight and his supporters have effectively disenfranchised Fiji's people, particularly the poor and disadvantaged members. Their act of terrorism has overthrown the people's expressed wish for a more equitable society. It has dismissed their dreams for better opportunities for their children. It has shattered their vision for a peaceful multiracial country.

The loss of some 8,000 jobs and wage reductions since May speaks for itself. Coupled with a removal of price control measures and the burning of homes, destruction of farms and looting of crops, cattle and shops, and other acts of terrorism, this assault on the labour market is causing poverty, misery and hardship on a scale never before experienced in our country. It is at this level that the treasonous acts of May 19th are having their most devastating impact. This is where the real betrayal of Fiji's people lies.

It is indeed ironic that self-proclaimed leaders like Speight and now interim Prime Minister Qarase should put themselves forward as champions of indigenous rights. It is equally ironic that the Qarase interim administration should project itself as a stabilising force that will help return the country to constitutional democracy, community reconciliation and economic reconstruction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On the contrary, the interim administration led by Laisenia Qarase is, paradoxically, a major obstacle to this process. There are numerous reasons for this that I would like to explain.

First, in terms of its composition, the administration is, with the exception of one, exclusively made up of ethnic Fijians. This ethnic makeup complies with one of the terrorist demands from the early stages of the hostage taking by Speight and his group.

Second, a large proportion of those comprising the interim administration have been directly implicated in the unlawful and armed overthrow of democracy in Fiji. Several are senior members of the defeated SVT government who have actively supported the terrorist agenda.

This applies to those individuals holding the Ministries of Information and Communication, Agriculture, Forestry and ALTA, Home Affairs and Immigration, Local Government, Housing and Urban Development, Lands and Mineral Resources, Fijian and Rotuman Development, as well as the Prime Minister. The military's choice of Mr Qarase as Prime Minister was publicly approved by Mr Speight and his group and it is common knowledge that the vast majority of his Cabinet support the ethnic supremacist position and demands.

Third, the agenda now set by the interim administration completes the capitulation of the Fiji authorities to the terrorist demands. These included the review of the Constitution in order to entrench Fijian supremacy. Mr Qarase has made no bones about his support for constitutional changes to achieve this end.

I need hardly remind you that such a move strikes at the very heart of the Harare Declaration as well as offending other international principles.

Fourth, despite being 'interim' and unelected, the administration has already made clear that it intends to hold the reins of government for two or three years, possibly longer. It has also begun making substantive policy interventions that are inappropriate for an interim authority. It is making changes to laws relating to land, labour, taxation, judiciary, public services and security.

Most alarming of all, the Qarase administration has crafted a blueprint for ethnic domination and apartheid in our country. This is based on the demands of Speight and his group.

As the Leader of the People's Coalition and elected Prime Minister, I am deeply disturbed by the racialist sentiments and purpose that find expression in the Qarase blueprint. They are offensive to our people, not only the Indo-Fijian community who stand to be disenfranchised, but to the majority of our peace-loving and fair minded citizens. I shudder to think of the legacy that will be handed down to our children from all communities.

Mutual respect and tolerance must be the cornerstones of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society such as ours. The Qarase blueprint significantly diminishes our prospects of achieving this.

Lastly, the administration has begun the process of constitutional review despite the resounding opposition to this from political parties, the trade union movement, and key civil society organisations including the Citizens Constitutional Forum and the NGO Coalition for Democracy in Fiji. The terms of reference for the review process make it abundantly clear that the intention is to reimpose the ethnic supremacist and discriminatory provisions of the 1990 Constitution which were solidly rejected by both the international community (including the Commonwealth) and Fiji's own people.

Additionally, the composition of the Constitutional Review Committee obstructs any possibilities for a just and democratic outcome. Three of its members were active in the unlawful overthrow of the elected government and lent their support to Speight at the parliamentary complex while we were held hostage. They include one member who was appointed Attorney General in Speight's Cabinet and drafted his decrees during the hostage taking, and another who was Speight's choice of Minister in the interim adminstration. The Chair of the Committee is held by one of the architects of the 1990 Constitution that was universally condemned.

For all these reasons, I am of the firm view that the interim administration will not return the country to democracy, peace and reconciliation. Quite the reverse, it is sowing the seeds for further conflict and instability. The administration comprises political terrorists masquerading as apolitical professionals. Their racist agendas are dishonestly projected as indigenous rights. Their self-interest is falsely propagated as a commitment to the national interest.

I say to you bluntly - if the unlawful interim administration is accorded any form of legitimacy or recognition by the international community, the future of ethnic relations and democracy in Fiji is bleak. Should the CMAG permit this administration to proceed with its road map to parliamentary democracy, it will seriously compromise the integrity of the Millibrook Programme of Action. It will undermine its commitment to upholding the Harare Declaration.

We in the People's Coalition have offered the Commonwealth our considered formula for the restoration of democracy. We believe that any road map must have as its basic premise the objective of fully reinstating the 1997 Constitution. In order to achieve this objective, the Commonwealth must itself directly engage with the Fiji crisis. This engagement should include the appointment of a High Level Special Envoy.

On our part, we are willing to consider, through the mediation of this High Level Special Envoy, the establishment of a Government of National Unity.

Through mediation, we propose to work on building a multi-party consensus to resolve underlying issues to the Fiji crisis, and agree to constitutional amendments if they are necessary. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and the Commonwealth Secretariat may be required to play further roles in promoting dialogue and consensus building. The successful operation of a Government of National Unity will depend upon the resolution of these underlying issues.

Let me make it quite clear. I do not take issue in principle with the formula prescribed by the Millbrook Plan for solving political crises in Commonwealth member states. However, I am absolutely convinced that the Fiji crisis demands a response that suits the special circumstances of the May crisis and that of a repeat offender. Our crisis requires a holistic and flexible approach that is responsive to the events that have actually taken place.

In particular, the Commonwealth response needs to take account of the fact that the coup of 19th May has not succeeded, and the main perpetrators are now in police custody charged with treason. It must also bear in mind that we have only recently traveled the road of an internationally endorsed constitutional review process, and accomplished one of the most respected constitutional instruments. There is no need for a new constitution, still less fresh elections under newly imposed rules, as is being proposed by the interim administration.

Indeed, all the institutions in Fiji are now in place to allow a speedy restoration of democracy. Free and fair general elections were held only a year ago. The establishment of a Government of National Unity can be achieved by the end of November 2000.

The road map being put forward by the interim administration is an exercise in deception and dishonesty. It is a crude attempt to exploit and distort the principles of the Millbrook Action Plan to suit a very different agenda - one that flies in the face of democracy, good governance and human rights. It will not restore investor confidence in our economy, and this will lead to even higher levels of unemployment and poverty for our people. Nor will it heal the wounds inflicted by the crisis and pave the way for genuine and lasting reconciliation.

While we are gratified that steps have been taken by our security forces in the last month to round up the terrorists and stem the tide of lawlessness and violence in the community, the efforts of the state fall well short of what is necessary or desirable. Today, the numbers of the refugee camp in the Western side of the main island have swollen to over 300, and orchestrated acts of intimidation and destruction continue in the rural areas.

These numbers will undoubtedly increase as the termination of leases, forced evictions and threats to freehold landholdings of Indo-Fijian farmers continue as a consequence of institutionalized racial discrimination now being actively promoted by the Qarase administration. Ultimately, the law and order problem can only be solved when the institutions of democracy are back in place.

Ministers, on behalf of the People's Coalition, I ask you not to turn your back on the 1997 Constitution and the people's choice of government.

The way ahead demands constructive engagement and compromise from all stakeholders. But in the search for a solution, we must not compromise on principles. The fundamental values that the majority of Fiji's people hold dear, and which are enshrined in the Commonwealth's own charter, cannot, in my view, be negotiated.

Once we do this, we turn our back on what is truthful and what is just. We will reject what the Commonwealth stands for and we will lay the foundations for continuing political instability and unconstitutional overthrow of democratically elected governments. They will pave the way for an apartheid state in the middle of the South Pacific.

I am confident that your recommendations will be guided by your collective wisdom, integrity and sense of justice. I know you will be steadfast and uncompromising in your commitment to the cherished values upon which the Commonwealth is founded. The peace-loving, law-abiding people of Fiji await the outcome of your deliberations with great hope and expectation.

I thank you again for this opportunity to address you personally.


- end -


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