The suspended Commonwealth member: Fiji

The Commonwealth's only suspended member Fiji will miss the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth.

It will be another reminder to Fiji's military rulers that its stated plans for a return to democracy aren't accepted internationally.

Nikki Canning reports.

Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth in 1987, after a race-based military coup that overthrew the country's first democratically-elected government led by an ethnic Indian.

The island nation was re-admitted to the Commonwealth 10 years later after democracy was restored.

There was a further 18-month period of suspension, beginning in 2000, as the Commonwealth expressed new concerns about Fiji's commitment to democracy.

Then in 2006 came another military coup, led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who remains in power.

In 2009, the Commonwealth provided Commodore Bainimarama with a final opportunity to commit to a prompt return to democracy.

Instead, the Commodore restated his position that elections would not be held until 2014, more than seven years after the coup.

The Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma gave the organisation's response.

"I announce with deep regret that the Republic of the Fiji Islands stands fully suspended from membership of the Commonwealth with immediate effect. It is a step the Commonwealth is obliged to take in defence of its fundamental values and principles, and one that it takes in great sorrow."

Full suspension of membership, as is the case with Fiji, means that it cannot take part in any Commonwealth meetings or programs.

Commonwealth member states are encouraged to take appropriate bilateral measures, such as limiting government-to-government contacts, to further reinforce the need for change.

Former Member of the Fiji Constitution Review Commission and now Canberra academic Brij Lal, says it sends a clear message.

"Suspension from the Commonwealth means that Fiji is unable to access Commonwealth scholarship training schemes, aid programs, and so on. It is not part of the family of Commonwealth nations and that is significant, just in those terms of aid, scholarship and so on and so forth. Secondly, I think it is symbolically very important in the sense that it is a constant reminder that what has happened in Fiji is unacceptable to the international community, including the Commonwealth."

Director of the Commonwealth Foundation Danny Sriskandarajah says not having Fiji at the Heads of Government Meeting in Perth is set to create some tension among leaders.

"Fiji being suspended will be seen by some as the right consequence, or a natural consequence of the Commonwealth sticking to its values. On the other hand, Fiji is such an important Pacific player without Fiji there representing or being part of the Pacific delegation I think many will miss Fiji in those discussions."

Suspension of membership also means that Fiji cannot participate in the Commonwealth Games.

Danny Sriskandarajah points out, that can be significant to a small island nation whose athletes have limited opportunities to participate in international competitions.

"Fijians really take their sport very seriously and I think it came home to them last year when their athletes weren't allowed to go to New Delhi for the Commonwealth Games."

Along with other international sanctions, the Commonwealth suspension was supposed to put pressure on Fiji's military government to restore democracy.

So far at least, Commodore Bainimarama has shown no sign of bowing to any of this pressure

But Danny Sriskandarajah says behind-the-scenes Commonwealth engagement with Fiji is continuing.

"The Commonwealth Secretariat, the political intergovernmental body continues to work with Fijian leaders about trying to push for democratic change but I think they found, we have all found, that it is an incredibly difficult environment at the moment and it's a government that has not shown huge commitment to some of the core principles of the Commonwealth and it's a deeply frustrating situation for many people at the moment."

Danny Sriskandarajah says the suspension of Fiji from the Commonwealth also sends a message to the leaders of other Commonwealth countries about how seriously the organisation regards democratic principles.

"[The Commonwealth is] unique in the sense that it has got a facility - something called the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, or CMAG - which was explicitly set up in the 1990s to suspend or expel members. It obviously takes a huge amount of effort to get a suspension in place but once it does happen I think it is an important signal not just to that country but to others about upholding the values and principles of the organisation."

Other countries have been suspended from the Commonwealth in the past - for example Pakistan and Zimbabwe - but no member has actually been expelled.

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