Outgoing US envoy says Bill paves way for coups

  • 31st May 2005
  • 2005
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The US Envoy warned the amnesty Bill if allowed to pass would be setting a dangerous precedent for more coups in the future.

Ambassador David Lyon in a hard hitting interview on the eve of his departure from Fiji, told The Fiji Times that if a democratic society does not make it clear that the overthrow of its elected leaders is a crime against society, it is inviting future upheaval.

Lyon also condemned predictions by prominent people of another coup should an Indian become Prime Minister.

“I deplore these statements as being absolutely despicable in a free, democratic society. For well known figures to threaten a coup – even by pretending they are simply predicting one – if they, their party or their own race isn’t successful at the ballot box is the worst form of scare-mongering, especially in a country wrecked by racial and regional divisions as Fiji has been,” he said.

While he pointed out that he could not comment on the Reconciliation and Unity Bill, which was an internal matter for Fiji to suit out, he admitted that the US Government did not classify between criminals and those who claim they are acting for a political purpose.

And expressed concern that a coup culture had developed in Fiji.

The full text of Ambassador Lyon’s interview in the Sunday Times is printed below:


An element of truth
VERENAISI RAICOLA (Monday, May 30, 2005)

Senior Writer Verenaisi Raicola spoke to the US ambassador David Lyon on moves to introduce the proposed Unity and Reconciliation Bill. Mr Lyon, who arrived in the country in January 2002 and leaves in mid-July when his appointment ends, had this to say:


Times: What do you think of the proposed Reconciliation Bill and the moves by the Government to bulldoze it through despite major opposition from stakeholders and some politicians?

Lyon: I don’t think it is appropriate for a foreign diplomat to comment in any detail on a Bill yet to be tabled or discussed in Parliament. I can say that I have found the debate over the Bill to be absolutely fascinating and to reflect well on Fiji as an open, democratic society that is questioning itself and has the freedom to do so. I have considerable respect for the Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and his team and trust they are listening closely to the serious questions being raised by legal scholars, civil society leaders and national security officials, especially on the question of amnesty for coup and mutiny participants. I certainly hope they are.

Times: How do you think the Bill would affect the people of this country?

Lyon: It’s obvious Fiji needs to come to grips with the forces that have led to three coups in 18 years and to the untold damage they have caused to Fiji’s economy and international reputation. I don’t know if the Bill is an answer to Fiji’s racial and political disunity, but I certainly hope the Government will ensure that all sectors of society, especially those that were the targets and victims of the coups, will take part in any reconciliation process.

I understand the Bill has been modelled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which did a great deal to help South Africans put behind them the horrific traumas of the apartheid era. It is also my understanding, though, that people appearing before the Commission were required to testify on their role in, or knowledge of, the violence perpetrated by the Government or by the anti-apartheid forces arrayed against it. They were required to do so under oath and could be subject to cross-examination. As someone who remains much in the dark over the people behind the coup and mutiny in 2000, I would certainly hope that “truth” would be a significant element of any system Fiji decides to put into place.

This is going off the question a bit, but I am deeply concerned with what is termed Fiji’s coup culture. The 1990 Constitution has already set a precedent for pardoning coup leaders, and I have to think this made it that much easier for George Speight, along with his backers and supporters, to attack the democratically-elected Chaudhry Government in May 2000. If a democratic society doesn’t make it clear that the violent over-throw of its elected leaders is a crime against that society, I have to think that it is inviting future upheaval. To badly paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana, perhaps I can say that those who do not learn from earlier coups are doomed to suffer coups in the future.

Times: This raises an interesting question-what has been your reaction to recent statements that another coup would be inevitable if deposed Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition party Mahendra Chaudhry returns to office? He has clearly stated that as party leader he would be the next PM if the Fiji Labour Party wins the 2006 elections.

Lyon: I deplore these statements as being absolutely despicable in a free, democratic society. For well-known figures to threaten a coup – even by pretending they are simply predicting one – if they, their party or their race isn’t successful at the ballot box is the worst form of scare-mongering, especially in a country wracked by racial and regional divisions as Fiji has been.

This coup mongering is harmful to Fiji’s international reputation and, if it continues or increases as we approach the 2006 elections, it will have a negative effect on investment and tourism. I don’t think I have had an American visitor yet, including a number contemplating sizeable investments here, who hasn’t asked me about Fiji’s political and social stability, in particular whether I thought there might be another coup. I can tell them that the Qarase government supports and protects foreign investment, I can tell them that the Army and Police commanders would stand behind any elected government, I can tell them that many people have learned first-hand of the damage that a coup causes to a society and economy, but in the face of continued hints or even threats of a coup, I can’t tell them that a coup won’t happen.

Making the danger of future coups even more intense is Fiji’s increasing reliance on a growing tourism industry for national economic growth. While sugar and garments, both industries in decline, are relatively immune from short-term political strife, tourism is not. Embassies will have no choice but to issue travel warnings and today’s tourists, who have a huge variety of options to choose from, will chose to stay away from Fiji.

I respect the fact that Fiji gradually returned to democracy after the 1987 coups and appreciate the important steps that Qarase’s Government has taken since 2000 to return the country to constitutional democracy. As a result of the Prime Minister’s leadership, the United States has lifted all restrictions imposed after the 2000 coup. My Embassy also lobbied hard and successfully to have Fiji welcomed back into the Community of Democracies this year, to have Fiji removed from a congressionally-mandated report on countries with poor human rights records, and to obtain millions of dollars of assistance to help train and equip Fijian peacekeepers.

All of these positive steps, though, will vanish in an instant if there is another coup or sufficient political upheaval questioning the legitimacy of future elections.

Times: Why does the US care about democracy and human rights – what difference is it to you?

Lyon: The US has made the pursuit of democracy and human rights worldwide a major foreign policy goal since Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. Presidents and congressional leaders of both parties have continued to support these objectives. We believe that democratic states that protect the rights of all citizens are the only way to ensure that people have a say in how they are governed, are the best brake against corruption, and, by allowing the participation of all citizens, are the best bulwark against racial and sectarian strife.

I remember being part of a university discussion where one participant challenged the rest of us to come up with a single war fought between democracies. I think we were able to force one or two examples, but the plain fact is that wars are fought among dictatorships and between dictatorships and democracies.

With regard to Fiji, I can honestly say that our over-riding objective here is Fiji’s success. A prosperous Fiji provides stability not only for its own people but serves as a successful regional centre for countries all across the Pacific. It provides a safe place for tens of thousands of American tourists annually and attracts US investment.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, a Fiji wracked by coups and instability is neither stable nor prosperous. I don’t think it was a total coincidence that the 2000 coup and mutiny were followed in short order by political instability in PNG, in the Solomon’s and even in Vanuatu. You are a leader in the region and it stands to reason that other countries will be influenced by both your failures and your successes.

Times: Does the US distinguish between political crimes and other offences?

Lyon: The United States has a deep distrust for the entire concept of political prisoners. This isn’t to say that people have not been punished for their political beliefs in the past – this certainly happened as recently as the 1950s to people believed to be communists – only that we have learned from these mistakes while strengthening our respect for individual freedoms.

I am far from being a legal scholar, but, in my view, a crime is when someone knowingly breaks the law, regardless of motivation. A person who robs a bank to fund political advocacy is a bank robber. An activist who firebombs an abortion clinic is an arsonist. Someone who takes a political leader he disagrees with hostage, beats him, and holds him for weeks on end, is a terrorist. A judge or jury might conceivably take motivation into account in determining the length of a sentence after a conviction, but I don’t believe this should be done with crimes involving violence or deaths.

One danger of separating political crimes from merely criminal offences is that this could create a separate class of political prisoners, people who haven’t committed crimes but who have in some way offended or posed a legitimate threat to their governments.

Times: Didn’t America pardon President Richard Nixon before he could be tried for a political crime?

Lyon: You are partly right. The crime in question was politically-motivated, to steal files from the Democratic National Committee, but, going back to my earlier comments about political offences, it was, pure and simple, a burglary. President Nixon was later charged with the crime of having tried to cover up the fact that employees of his election campaign had committed the crime.

It is important to note that the rule of law actually worked exactly as set forward in our constitution.

For his actions in covering up the Watergate burglary – there has never been any evidence that he was aware of the break-in in advance, much less that he had authorised it – Nixon resigned the presidency before he could be impeached by the US Congress and removed from office by the US Senate.

President Ford believed that this was sufficient punishment and used his constitutional powers to pardon Nixon for any of his actions related to Watergate.

The actual Watergate burglars were convicted of breaking & entering and were sentenced for that crime, not for their political motivations.