Fiji’s position over Israeli war on Gaza – international blunder or a domestic strategy?

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"Shame on you Tarakinikini" . . . a placard at a weekly Black Thursday protest held by the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre in solidarity with Palestine and calling for an immediate ceasefire in Israel's War on Gaza. Image: FWCC

SPECIAL REPORT: By Richard Naidu, editor of Islands Business

South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has been described as involving two competing narratives: one, about a displaced Palestinian people denied their right to self-determination, and the other, about the Jewish people who, having established an independent state in their historical homeland after generations of persecution in exile, have been under threat from hostile neighbours ever since.

When Fiji joined the United States as the only two countries to support Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory at the ICJ in February, it was seen as walking head-on into one of the longest running conflicts in history, leaving Fijians, as well as the international community struggling to figure out which narrative that position fits into.

Following Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel in October, Israel’s retaliatory campaign against Gaza has provoked international consternation and has seen a humanitarian crisis unfolding, resulting in the motions against Israel in the ICJ.

And since then other cases such as Nicaragua this month against Germany alleging the enabling by the European country of the alleged genocide by Israel as the second-largest arms supplier.

South Africa had asked the ICJ to consider whether Israel was committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

Fiji’s pro-Israel position was on another matter — the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) had requested the ICJ’s advisory opinion into Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

Addressing the ICJ, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, retired Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini said the ICJ should not render an advisory opinion on the questions posed by the General Assembly. He said the court had been presented “with a distinctly one-sided narrative. This fails to take account of the complexity of this dispute, and misrepresents the legal, historical, and political context.”

The UNGA request was “a legal manoeuvre that circumvents the existing internationally sanctioned and legally binding framework for resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute,” said Tarakinikini.

“And if the ICJ is to consider the legal consequences of the alleged Israeli refusal to withdraw from territory, it must also look at what Palestine must do to ensure Israel’s security,” he said.

On the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, “Fiji notes that the right to self-determination is a relative right.

“In the context of Israel/Palestine, this means the Court would need to ascertain whether the Palestinians’ exercise of their right to self-determination has infringed the territorial
integrity, political inviolability or legitimate security needs of the State of Israel,” he added.

Crossing the line
Long-standing Fijian diplomats such as Kaliopate Tavola and Robin Nair said Fiji had crossed the line by breaking with its historically established foreign policy of friends-to-all -and-enemies-to-none.

Nair, Fiji’s first ambassador to the Middle East, said Fiji had always chosen to be an international peacekeeper, trusted by both sides to any argument or conflict that requires its services.

“The question being asked is, how is it in the national interest of Fiji to buy into the Israeli-Palestine dispute, particularly when it has been a well-respected international peacekeeper in the region?

How Islands Business introduced the Fiji and Israel policy article
How Islands Business introduced the Fiji and Israel policy article. Image: IB screenshot APR

“Fiji has either absented itself or abstained from voting on any decisions at the United Nations concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issues, particularly since 1978 when Fiji began taking part in the UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations in the Middle East,” Nair told Islands Business.

Nair said it was worth noting that in keeping with its traditionally neutral position on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Fiji had initially abstained on the UN General Assembly resolution asking the ICJ for an advisory opinion.

Former Ambassador Kaliopate Tavola asks why that position has changed. “Fiji’s rationale for showing interest now is not so much about the real issue on the ground — the genocide
taking place, but the niceties of legal processes. Coming from Fiji with its history of coups, it is a bit over-pretentious, one may say”.

Fiji's stance over Israel has implications for the military
Fiji’s stance over Israel . . . implications for the safety and security of Fijian peacekeeping troops deployed in the Middle East. Image: Republic of Fiji Military Forces/Islands Business

At odds with past conduct
Former Deputy Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, now professor in law at the University of Fiji, Aziz Mohammed, says the change of position does not reconcile with Fiji’s past endorsement of international instruments and conventions, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) statute on war crimes at play in the current proceedings at the ICJ.

“That endorsement happened by the government that was in power at the time of the current Prime Minister (Sitiveni Rabuka’s administration in the 1990s),” says Mohammed.

“We became the fifth country to endorse it. So, it was very early that we planted a flag to say, ‘we’re going to honour this international obligation’. And that happened. But subsequently, we brought the war crimes (section from the ICC statute) into our Crimes Act. Not only that, but we also adopted the international humanitarian laws into our laws — three Geneva Conventions, and three protocols. So, in terms of laws, most countries only have adopted two, but we have adopted all the international instruments. But then we’re not adhering to it.”

Fiji was among six Pacific Island countries — including Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia — that voted against a UN resolution in October calling for a humanitarian truce in Gaza.

That vote caused significant political ruptures. One of Rabuka’s two coalition partners, the National Federation Party (NFP), said Fiji should have voted for the resolution. “It was a motion that called for peace and access to humanitarian aid, and as a country, we should have supported that,” said NFP Leader, Professor Biman Prasad, who is Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister.

Prasad’s fellow party member and former NFP Leader, Home Affairs Minister, Pio Tikoduadua, served in the Fiji peacekeeping forces deployed to Lebanon in the 1990s, and recounted the horrors of war he had seen in the region.

“I can still vividly remember the blood, the carnage and the mothers weeping for their children and the children finding out that they no longer had parents,” he said.

“In any war, no matter how justified your cause may be, it is always the innocent that suffer and pay the price. Those images, those memories are seared into my memory forever . . . that is why NFP has taken the position of supporting a ceasefire in Gaza contrary to Fiji’s position at the UN.”

Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, Major-General Jone Kalouniwai said the “decision has significant implications for the safety and security of RFMF troops currently deployed in the Middle East” and called on the government to reevaluate its stance on the Israel-Hamas issue.

“Their safety and security should remain a top priority, and it is crucial that their contribution to international peacekeeping efforts are fully supported and respected,” an RFMF statement said.

Interesting cocktail
Writing in the Asia-Pacific current affairs publication, The Diplomat, Melbourne-based Australia and the Pacific political analyst, Grant Wyeth said Pacific islanders’ faith and foreign policy make an “interesting cocktail” that drives their UN votes in favour of Israel. He knocks any theories about the United States having bought off these island nations.

“Rather than power, faith may be the key to understanding the Pacific Islands’ approach,” writes Wyeth. “Much of the Pacific is highly observant in their Christianity, and they have an eschatological understanding of humanity.”

He notes that various denominations of Protestantism see the creation of Israel in 1948 as the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy in which the Jewish people — “God’s chosen” — return to the Holy Land.

“Support for Israel is, therefore, a deeply held spiritual belief, one that sits alongside Pacific
Islands’ other considerations of interests and opportunities when forming their foreign policies.”

In September, Papua New Guinea moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Prime Minister James Marape was quoted as saying at the time: “For us to call ourselves
Christian, paying respect to God will not be complete without recognising that Jerusalem is the universal capital of the people and the nation of Israel.”

"I am ashamed of my own government" Fiji protest
“I am ashamed of my own government” protester placards at a demonstration by Fijians outside the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC) . . . commentators draw a distinction between the matter of political recognition/state identity and the humanitarian issues at stake. Image: FWCC

Political vs humanitarian
The commentators draw the distinction between the matter of political recognition/state identity and the humanitarian issues at stake.

Says Mohammed: “This is not about recognising the state of Israel. This is about a conflict where people wanted to protect the unprotected. All they were saying is, ‘let’s’ support a ceasefire so [that] women, children, elderly … could get out [and] food supplies, medical supplies could get in …’ and it wasn’t [going to be] an indefinite ceasefire, which we [Fiji]
agreed to later.”

Fiji eventually did vote for the ceasefire when it came before the UN General Assembly again in December, following a major outcry against its position at home. The key concern going forward is the impact on the future of Fiji’s decades-long peacekeeping involvement in the Middle East.

Fiji-born political sociologist, Professor Steven Ratuva, is director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies and professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Canterbury.

“The security of Fijian soldiers overseas will be threatened, as well as Fijian citizens themselves,” says Ratuva. “There are already groups campaigning underground for a tourist boycott of Fiji. I’ve personally received angry emails about ‘your bloody dumb country.’”

Nair says when 45 peacekeeping Fijian soldiers were taken hostage by the al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group al-Nusra Front in the Golan Heights in 2014, when all else — including the UN — had failed to secure their release, Fiji’s only bargaining power was the value of its peacekeeping neutrality.

“No international power stepped up to help Fiji in its most traumatic time in international relations in its entire history. Fiji had to fall back on itself, to use its own humble credentials. I successfully used our peace-keeping credentials in the Middle East and over many decades, including the shedding of Fijian blood, to ensure peace in the Middle East, to free our captured soldiers.”

Punishing the RFMF?
Mohammed agrees with the concern about the implications of Fiji’s compromised neutrality.

“I think what’s on everybody’s mind is whether we’re going to continue peacekeeping or suddenly, somebody is going to say, ‘enough of Fiji, they have compromised their neutrality, their impartiality, and as such, we are withdrawing consent and we want them to go back,’” he says.

Fiji’s Home Affairs Minister, Pio Tikoduadua has been dismissive of such concerns, saying Fiji’s position on Israel at the ICJ did not diminish the capability of its peacekeepers because Fiji had “very professional people serving in peacekeeping roles”.

Mohammed, with an almost 40-year military career and having held the rank of Deputy Commander and once a significant figure on Fiji’s military council, asks whether Fiji’s position on Israel is a strategic manoeuvre by the government to reign in the military.

“Do they really want Fijian peacekeepers out there? Or are they going to indirectly punish the RFMF [Republic of Fiji Military Forces]?” he said in an interview with Islands Business.

He floats this theory on the basis that Fiji’s position on Israel came from two men acutely aware of what is at stake for the Fijian military — Prime Minister Rabuka and Tarakinikini, both seasoned army officers with extensive experience in matters of the Middle East.

“We all know that in recent times, the RFMF has been vocal (in national affairs). And they have stood firm on their role under Article 131 (of Fiji’s 2013 Constitution which states that it is the military’s overall responsibility to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians).

“And they have pressured the government into positions, so much so, the government has had difficulty. And they (government) say, ‘the RFMF are stepping out of position. Now, how do we control the RFMF? How do we cut them into place? One, we can basically give them everything and keep them quiet, or two, we take away the very thing that put them in the limelight. How do we do that? We take a position, knowing very well that the host countries will withdraw their consent, and the Fijians will be asked to leave’.

“Fiji will no longer have peacekeepers. No peacekeeping engagements, the numbers of the RFMF will have to be reduced. So, all they will do is be confined to domestic roles.

“People are questioning this,” says Mohammed. “Military strategists are raising this issue because the government knows they can’t openly tell the Fijian public that we are withdrawing from peacekeeping. There’ll be an outcry because every second household in Fiji has some member who has served in peacekeeping.

“So, strategically, we [government] take a position. It may not be perceived that way. But the outcome is happening in that direction.”

Richard Naidu is currently editor of Islands Business. This article was published in the March edition of the magazine and is republished here with permission.

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