, SYDNEY, Jul 30 – Australia and New Zealand Monday agreed to restore full diplomatic relations with military-run Fiji, which have been suspended since tit-for-tat expulsions of each other’s top envoys in 2009.
It followed Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr holding talks with his New Zealand and Fiji counterparts, Murray McCully and Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, in Sydney.
During the discussions, the Fijian minister updated them on progress towards democratic elections in 2014.
“As a consequence of today’s meeting, all three sides agreed to restore diplomatic relations,” Carr’s spokesman told AFP.
“It was considered that the move to democratic reform was encouraging and irreversible,” he added.
Relations with Fiji have been turbulent since Australia and New Zealand expelled Fiji’s envoys in November 2009, a day after Suva ordered their high commissioners out, claiming interference in its judicial affairs.
Canberra and Wellington had led condemnation of Fiji military leader Voreqe Bainimarama since he seized power from the elected government in December 2006 in the country’s fourth coup in two decades.
Bainimarama took control pledging to root out corruption and introduce a one-person, one-vote system intended to end entrenched racial inequalities in the nation of 840,000 but reneged on a promise to hold elections in 2009.
Instead, he tore up the constitution and introduced emergency laws that muzzled the media and banned public meetings, saying the country would not be ready for elections until 2014.
Australia and New Zealand, major aid donors in the South Pacific nation, responded by successfully pushing for Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum.
But since January, the military government has gradually relaxed some its emergency powers and announced plans to finalise a progressive constitution ahead of elections in 2014, leading to a thaw in relations.
In a statement, Carr and McCully said their talks with Kubuabola had been constructive.
“Senator Carr and Minister McCully raised concerns about media freedoms and human rights and looked forward to further steps,” it said.
“Minister Kubuabola reiterated his government’s commitment to ensuring an environment in which free, fair and inclusive elections can be held.
“The ministers agreed to exchange high commissioners to ensure channels of dialogue between the respective countries were open and effective.”
They added that travel sanctions slapped on key players within the regime would be re-examined “on a case-by-case basis”.
The restoration of diplomatic ties comes after a Pacific delegation, including Carr and McCully, travelled to Suva in May as part of a Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) mission and reported “positive progress”.
It also comes the same day that former Fiji prime minister Laisenia Qarese, who was ousted in the 2006 military coup, was convicted on nine charges of abuse of office and failing to discharge his duty.
In the case brought by Fiji’s anti-corruption watchdog, the charges related to his time as a director of a government investment company called Fijian Holdings from 1992 to 1995.
The conviction means he will not be eligible to contest the elections in 2014.