By Ravindra Singh Prasad
SUVA, Fiji | 3 November 2023 (IDN) — Fiji’s vote at the recent UN General Assembly against a ceasefire in Gaza to protect civilians has split the governing coalition government and upset the chief of the armed forces.
Fiji’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Professor Biman Prasad, leader of the governing coalition’s partner, the National Federation Party, has broken Cabinet unity and publicly criticized the decision taken by Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka to vote in favor of Israel at the United Nations. He said that Fiji should have voted for the resolution because “it was a motion that called for peace and access to humanitarian aid, and as a country, we should have supported that”.
In a statement signed off by the commander of the Republic of Fiji’s Military Forces (RFMF), Major General Jone Kalauniwal warned that 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,” the RFMF statement said.
Fiji’s Contribution to the UN Peacekeeping Force
With 4500 active soldiers and about 6,200 reservists, Fiji’s military is one of the smallest in the world. But, the RFMF is one of the strongest contributors to UN peacekeeping forces around the world. They are right now in the Golan Heights, Iraq, Syria and in the Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East. Peacekeepers’ income represents an important source of foreign revenue for Fiji.
Rabuka, when first asked by reporters about the vote, just brushed it off, asking, “Who stirred the hornet nest?” in an obvious reference to Hamas attacks inside Israel. But, a day after splits in the governing coalition emerged, he told the media that “there are times when the PM has to take unilateral decisions and be able to stand up for those decisions when other parties to the coalition come together”.
Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua has served in the Fiji peacekeeping forces deployed to Lebanon in the 1990s. Now a member of the NFP, in a media briefing on Tuesday (31 October), he said he opposed the PM’s decision to support Israel’s incursion in Gaza because while manning the Fiji Battalion Headquarters with the UN Interim Forces in Qana in Lebanon in April 1996, he has seen the horrors of war in the region.
“That day, our position was shelled in the loss of dozens of lives—especially women and children. 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,” related Tikoduadua. “In any war, 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”.
In a media statement, Fiji Labour Party leader and former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry asks “should we worry that our own human rights situation here could well be endangered or compromised now that we have a government supporting human rights violation elsewhere in the world?”
UN vote compromises legacy as peacekeepers
Opposition MP Premila Kumar argues the UN vote has compromised Fiji’s longstanding legacy as peacekeepers. She argues Fiji’s vote “conveys a lack of empathy for the civilians affected by the conflict in Gaza”.
But the governing coalition’s third partner Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) general secretary Viliame Takayawa told Fiji Times that their party will continue to support Israel and its right to defend itself and he pointed out to his party’s Christian solid credentials.
In addition to Fiji, five other Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are among the 14 who voted in Israel’s favour. They are Papua New Guinea (PNG), Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Nauru and Tonga. While Kiribati, Palau, Tuvalu and Vanuatu joined regional power Australia in abstaining. New Zealand and Solomon Islands were the only Pacific countries to vote for the resolution.
The small PICs have regularly voted in favour of Israel in UN voting, which perhaps reflect their strong Christian communities. Right across the Pacific in the past 3 decades, conservative Evangelical Christianity has taken strong roots.
“There is little doubt that Christianity played a part in the positions taken by Pacific leaders,” Dr. Gordon Nanau, senior lecturer in Politics and International Affairs at the University of the South Pacific, told IDN.
He argues that many of the people in the Pacific need to be better informed about the conditions that led to the current chaos. “Their leaders would vote against the resolution because, for them, Israel is equated with Christianity,” notes Dr Nanau. “Those leaders who voted for the resolution risk alienation from their people.”
Fiji, Israel and USA
Grant Wyeth, a Melbourne-based political analyst specializing in Australia and the Pacific, argued in a recent article in The Diplomat that Pacific islanders’ faith and foreign policy make an interesting cocktail that drives their UN votes in favor of Israel. He argues against the suspicion that the United States has brought off these small and poor island nations. Israel is not a major aid-giver to the region either.
“Rather than power, faith may be the key to understanding the Pacific Islands’ approach,” wrote Wyeth. “Much of the Pacific is highly observant in their Christianity, and they have an eschatological understanding of humanity.”
He notes that, In particular, 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,” he argues.
In September, PNG has moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As Wyeth points out, Prime Minister James Marape has said at the time: “For us to call ourselves Christian, paying respect to God will not be complete without recognizing that Jerusalem is the universal capital of the people and the nation of Israel.”
Though Fiji has a substantial Hindu population made up of descendants of Indian indentured labor brought here about 150 years ago by the British to work in the new sugarcane plantations, the indigenous Fijians are almost exclusively Christians converted to the faith by waves of Christian missionaries who arrived here during European colonial rule. Lately, Pentecostal churches have taken a stronghold in Fijian society. [IDN-InDepthNews – 3 November 2023]
Photo: UN General Assembly Hall. Credit: UN
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