Australia and New Zealand kicked out Fiji’s top envoys yesterday in retaliation for a similar move by the Pacific country’s military regime, abruptly raising regional tensions.
The two countries made near-simultaneous announcements a day after Fiji said it would expel their senior diplomats in Suva over alleged interference in its judicial matters.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said acting high commissioner Kamlesh Kumar Arya had been ordered to return to Suva within 24 hours, adding that he was “deeply disappointed” at Fiji.
He rejected claims of meddling in the island nation, which has already been suspended from the Commonwealth and from the Pacific Islands Forum for failing to return to democracy since its latest coup in 2006.
“This excuse is neither warranted, reasonable nor justified, and regrettably it takes Fiji’s relationship with Australia, Fiji’s relationship with New Zealand ... the Pacific Islands Forum and ... the international community backwards,” Smith told reporters in Perth.
His New Zealand counterpart Murray McCully said Fiji’s acting head of mission, Kuliniasi Seru Savou, had been ordered out of the country in response to Suva’s expulsion of top diplomat Todd Cleaver.
“Diplomatic relations with Fiji are roughly the same they have been for the last couple of years unfortunately,” McCully told reporters in Wellington. “We have had our ups and downs and unfortunately today they are down.”
Australia and New Zealand have led condemnation of Commodore Frank Bainimarama since he toppled the elected government in a December 2006 coup, and have both imposed travel sanctions on people associated with the regime.
Bainimarama accused Australia and New Zealand of attacking Fiji’s judiciary over alleged attempts to block judges from traveling to their countries.
He also said the heads of their diplomatic missions had refused to engage with the government and were waging “a negative campaign against the government and people of Fiji.”
“We are suspended from the Commonwealth. Australia and New Zealand have suspended us from the [Pacific Islands] Forum,” Bainimarama told New Zealand’s Radio Tarana.
“So it really doesn’t make any difference. But ... we can’t afford to be bullied,” he said.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Canberra would maintain a tough stance on Fiji to prevent its “coup culture,” including four power-grabs over two decades, spreading around the Pacific.
“Commodore Bainimarama has conducted the military coup, he has violated the Constitution, he has refused to hold elections, and he’s suspended the judiciary,” Rudd told public broadcaster ABC.
“And so therefore we have taken a deliberately hardline approach to this regime because we do not want this coup culture to spread,” he said.