International Union Body Condemns Australia's Moves On Fiji

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The head of the International Trade Union Confederation has expressed shock at what she terms Australia's unconditional moves to normalise relations with Fiji. [Listen to the full interview here ]

The comments by Sharan Burrow follow the weekend visit to Suva by Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, as part of a Pacific Island Forum ministerial delegation.

The ministerial contact group was in Fiji to assess the country's progress towards democracy under the military-led government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

Elections have been promised by the end of September.

Interviewer: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation

BURROW: Why a government with so much influence and ostensibly a commitment to democracy and legislative rights would actually give unconditional normalisation of a relationship with a dictator, a guy who was a coup leader, who it's not yet secure that he means free and fair elections, the rules are not clear, the press is anything but free and some of it's around licensing but a lot of it's around the culture of fear. But for us the anger is that this is a government who imprisoned just a few weeks ago members of the hotel union and leadership for actually standing up for a community issue in a hotel where there was absolute injustice. So this is one after another after another pieces of evidence where union leaders are jailed, where there are decrees that stop bargaining, that actually prevent freedom of association. There is a government here who has not shown any commitment to the rights of its people. It's certainly not a government that I would trust at this point without clear rules and clear independence to have any intention about free and fair elections. And even I saw in the press Julie Bishop talking to him about post-election intentions. We have to remember this guy engineered a military coup, and for Australia a democratic government to put unconditional normalisation on the issues in Fiji is to turn their backs on the Fiji people and fundamental rights.

EWART: It's perhaps important to state though that what has happened over the last few days is not Australia working alone, New Zealand was involved in the ministerial contact group and a number of Pacific countries as well, and those Pacific countries have stepped up and said for example they believe that Fiji should be involved in trade talks. So this is not one country operating alone, and the collective view is what they're trying to do here is to engineer the return to democracy, and without engagement they believe that will be harder to achieve?

BURROW: Well you know the jury's out. I have to say there's no reason for us to trust a dictator who has effectively jailed union leaders, taken away their rights, operated against the interests of other citizens involved in democracy, sanctioned the press and destroyed freedom of the press. You can't simply wipe out that legacy in a day. If there are conditions that have been put on it, if there are guarantees then let's hear them because frankly people deserve to know that Australia and New Zealand, the other Pacific countries aren't just putting trade above the fundamental democratic rights of people.

EWART: What's your stand on the way the whole question of sanctions is being looked at, because the Attorney General in Fiji, a member of course of the interim government, he's on record as saying that the existing sanctions, which include travel sanctions on him and other members of the government, amount to economic sabotage. But some might argue that that's exactly what sanctions are supposed to do?

BURROW: Well there's no question that if a government is not democratic, if we have a cycle of coups that we've seen in Fiji and other governments don't determine that they don't want to deal with that sort of abuse of rights, then who stands up for the people, who stands up for democracy? When the dollar comes before people and their fundamental right to liberty then we've got an issue about what it is that these governments stand for, and it certainly doesn't share our value set, people come first, their rights, their freedoms, their right to actually have freedom of speech, the right to join a union, freedom of association for NGOs, and of course freedom of the press, fundamental to a democracy. This is not a democracy. If it turns out that the elections are free and fair I think everybody would celebrate. But I have to say I'm shocked to see my own government normalise relations with absolutely no conditions that show some degree of respect and support for the rights of people in Fiji.

EWART: I think to be scrupulously fair to the Australian government and part of the normalisation process that they're looking at is this question of travel restrictions on members of the Fijian government. They're saying that those travel restrictions have to be lifted, as I mentioned they've described them as economic sabotage. But the Australian government is still reviewing that situation, they haven't said that they will do that. But I'm wondering is there an undercurrent here, a concern about the growing influence of China in the region and therefore that's why Australia and New Zealand feel they have to act?

BURROW: Well I don't know, I'm not close enough to those discussions. But if you sacrifice the democratic rights and freedoms of people, of the people of Fiji because of some geopolitical interests that a government might have, you have to ask what is more important? Sit down with China by all means, but normalised relations without conditions that give people in Fiji some hope that they have some friends in the international community that's a big call, and frankly I can't see how on earth it can provide hope or leadership or use the pressure that Australia, New Zealand and others have to actually give the Fijian people the chance they deserve.