South Pacific Crisis Brings Threat of Sanctions

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - Foreign ministers from several Commonwealth countries are meeting in London Tuesday to consider punitive action against Fiji. A second coup Monday in the South Pacific region has broadened the agenda of Tuesday's emergency talks.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have already threatened to impose economic sanctions on Fiji, where the prime minister is being held hostage by gunmen who oppose the participation of minority ethnic Indians in Fijian politics.

Another coup in the area - in the Solomon Islands on Monday - will also be discussed Tuesday, as will the ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker Monday condemned the Solomon Islands coup, saying the U.S. called for "the immediate and unconditional release of any persons being held hostage, and a resumption of normal constitutional government."

Those meeting in London include members of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, a committee of eight Commonwealth member-states whose aim is to promote democracy in the organization.

Armed rebels in the Solomon Islands seized Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu Monday and demanded that he be replaced. The crisis reportedly is linked to tensions between two ethnic groups. Those tensions have been simmering for the past half-century and flared up over the past 18 months.

Fighting continued near the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara Tuesday, according to reports from New Zealand.

The coup was led by Malaita secessionist rebels, whose dominance of the capital, Honiara, is bitterly opposed by another group, the Isatabu.

Apart from capturing Ulufa'alu, the Malaita rebels also seized control of police stations and a government telecom center.

New Zealand diplomats in Honiara are trying to mediate.

Copycat coup

The rebels' action in Solomon Islands was apparently patterned on the crisis in Fiji, some 1,600 miles away, where Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudry remains hostage after a coup mounted two weeks ago.

Coup leader George Speight and a group of armed supporters seized Chaudry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian premier, and more than 30 other people during a raid on parliament on May 19.

Speight is insisting that Chaudry resign, and that the country's constitution be amended to entrench greater rights for indigenous Fijians.

A week after the coup, the armed forces head, Commodore Frank Bainimaram, declared martial law and has been trying to negotiate with the rebels holed up in the parliament building in the capital, Suva.

The coup plotters have rejected Bainimaram's offer of an amnesty in exchange for their surrender and release of the hostages. Speight has threatened to execute his captives if force is used, and the military chief has given assurances he will not do so.

The foreign minister of Australia, Alexander Downer, said there was little doubt the Solomon Islands attack had been influenced by events in Fiji. Australia is an important trading partner of the Pacific island nations.

The Commonwealth is an influential grouping of Britain and its former colonies, and its members comprise roughly one-quarter of the world's population.

Its Ministerial Action Group is made up of Britain, Canada, Australia, Botswana, Bangladesh, Barbados, Malaysia and Nigeria.

The most likely action for the body to take is to partially suspend the errant members from the organization. The Commonwealth last year suspended Pakistan following General Pervez Musharraf's military coup.

An embargo on commercial, defense, diplomatic and sporting links may also be imposed.

"Taking hostage of an elected prime minister is clearly in conflict with Commonwealth rules," spokesperson Kaye Whiteman said.

"[We] want to make it clear that the international community, in which the Commonwealth is on the frontline, disapproves."

Suspension would be particularly galling for Fiji, whose people have traditionally embraced close links with Queen Elizabeth, the British monarch and symbolic head of the Commonwealth. After an earlier coup in 1987, Fiji was suspended for the next ten years.

Fiji is a nation of 322 islands with a population of 804,000 (46 percent of Indian origin), and lies directly north of New Zealand. It gained independence from Britain in 1970.

The Solomon Islands comprise ten large and many smaller islands, scattered over 10,000 square miles north-east of Australia, and with a population of some 450,000. The former British protectorate became an independent democracy in 1978.

Its main island is Guadalcanal, the scene of fierce battles between U.S. and Japanese forces during World War II.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow