Not for the first time, Foreign Minister Murray McCully has held out an olive branch to Fiji. He says travel bans will have to be relaxed soon if the military regime headed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama gives a firm commitment to hold elections in 2014.
From the standpoint of logistics, that is logical enough. Fiji will need to be able to recruit senior staff to organise and oversee an election. But extracting a cast-iron guarantee of a poll is another matter altogether. Mr McCully is hopeful the chance to attend Rugby World Cup matches will be the catalyst.
There are some grounds for thinking this may be so. Fijians' love of rugby is well known, and the ban on the entry to this country of members of the regime and their families and military personnel is clearly a considerable irritation. But New Zealand needs to be careful.
Previous pledges for a return to democracy, delivered to countries boasting far greater international clout than this one, have been dishonoured. That raises the issue of how far Commodore Bainimarama's word can be trusted. It also raises the question of whether the World Cup would, more appropriately, be used as a stick to hammer home New Zealand's dissatisfaction with his regime, rather than acting as a carrot.
There is little doubt what path Australia would pursue. Late last month, its Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, said the only person who needed to change was Commodore Bainimarama. He rejected any need for a more incentive-based approach involving the likes of the World Cup. "We're not in the business of legitimising what has been a very ugly military coup," said Mr Rudd. "The reverse is that Bainimarama must change if he is to adhere to the standards and the norms of the Pacific Islands Forum, the standards and norms of the Commonwealth, the standards and norms of the United Nations."
Reinforcement for Australia's unbending line has been supplied by Amnesty International. Early last month, it said it was deeply concerned about an ongoing crackdown on human rights in Fiji. In the previous fortnight, at least 10 politicians, trade unionists, government critics and other Fijians had been arbitrarily arrested and subjected to severe beatings and other forms of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of the military.
At much the same time, Mr McCully noted there had been little progress towards the resumption of democracy in Fiji, following a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum's ministerial contact group. He denies now that his latest statement indicates a different approach to that of Mr Rudd, but says, somewhat cryptically, that he has had more interaction with Fiji than Australia.
In principle, there is much to be said for ongoing communication. But since seizing power in 2006, the regime has shown little willingness to engage meaningfully with the international community. Indeed, it has turned a deaf ear to it in progressively squashing dissent, abrogating the constitution, dismissing the judiciary and suppressing the media.
On the surface, at least, there seems scant evidence a corner is about to be turned.
Mr McCully appears to be hinting otherwise. Fiji is now "closer than it was before" to delivering hard evidence of progress to elections in 2014, he says. The minister notes any relaxation of the travel ban would depend on a report by the ministerial contact group, as well as agreement on an election timetable by international forums, such as the Commonwealth. While the World Cup gives New Zealand an ostensible opportunity to lure concessions from the dictator, it also gives him one more chance to make us look foolish. We should hold our nerve. (NZ Herald)