The RFMF Commander, Major General Ro Jone Kalouniwai, suddenly has a big credibility problem arising from today’s Fiji Times front page story in which he says there is “nothing to prove” that human rights abuses were carried out by Colonel Penioni (Ben) Naliva, who has been appointed Deputy Commander of the 7th Brigade of the Australian Army.
Indeed, Ro Kalouniwai has stumbled into a major blunder by claiming that allegations of torture against Colonel Naliva “surfaced after a post on social media”. Wrong. They surfaced on the front page of the most authoritative newspaper in Australia and the ramifications are still being debated at the top of the political and defence establishment in Canberra.
Last week’s story in the Murdoch-owned broadsheet – The Australian – detailed a catalogue of human rights abuse allegations against the man who Fiji put forward to join the Australian army as part of the new defence cooperation agreements under the “Vuvale” partnership between the two countries. (See our Jan 29 posting “Fiji torture allegations big news in Australia”. Link below)
There were three principal witnesses against Ben Naliva – the former politician, Sam Speight, the colourful Suva identity, Ben Padarath, and the human rights campaigner, Pita Waqavonovono. And The Australian followed up its first front page story with a second concentrating on the allegations by Sam Speight and then a third in which a prominent former soldier in the Australian Parliament, Jacqui Lambie, said putting Naliva in charge of Australian troops was unacceptable. (see below)
So this is far from being “one post on social media” and the RFMF Commander’s lapse of judgment in trying to portray it as such only serves to underline the potential for this story to become a much bigger headache for Fiji. Because as things stand, it isn’t the credibility of The Australian newspaper that is at issue but why the RFMF and the Coalition government didn’t tell the Australians that the man they had put forward to take charge of 3,500 Australian troops had human rights abuse allegations against him.
The Australian‘s story was written by one of its most respected journalists, NSW Editor Stephen Rice – a multi award-winning veteran of print and television – who reportedly interviewed each of the complainants in detail. All alleged that Ben Naliva was either present or took part in human rights abuses against them, including an account by Sam Speight that Naliva had tried to place a rifle barrel in his anus. Grubsheet understands that the story went through a rigorous examination by lawyers acting for the Murdochs before approval was given to publish.
Unfortunately for the Coalition and the RFMF, The Australian is the most influential newspaper in political and defence circles in Australia. So the impact of the story has gone far beyond the effect of a single social media posting and why Major General Kalouniwai has left himself so exposed by suggesting otherwise is a mystery. And especially in the light of what we know – which admittedly isn’t a great deal – about what may be going on behind the scenes in both Canberra and Suva.
Grubsheet understands that the Australians are saying they didn’t know about the allegations against Ben Naliva when Fiji put his name forward for the ADF Deputy Commander’s position. This seems very strange when the allegations have been on the public record for years and have been thoroughly covered by the likes of Victor Lal at Fijileaks.
It seems inconceivable that Australia’s High Commissioner to Fiji, Ewan McDonald, wouldn’t have known or been made aware that there were question marks over Ben Naliva’s record. McDonald is a veteran of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who before he was named Special Envoy to the Pacific last year, had headed its entire Pacific division surrounded by lots of people with a collective memory of the 2006 coup.
So Ewan McDonald could and should have known about the potential for controversy before sending Ben Naliva into what has now become an ambush for him and a major embarrassment for the Australian and Fijian governments. The Australian Liberal-National Party opposition is evidently siding with the government in trying to play down the significance of this story. But Jacqui Lambie’s public intervention as a former soldier and now independent Australian Senator to say that the appointment shouldn’t have been made makes it highly unlikely that Ben Naliva will be welcomed with open arms by the ordinary Australian troops under his command. An alleged human rights abuser as Deputy Commander of the 7th Brigade of the ADF? That would certainly be a first.
For what it’s worth, here’s Grubsheet’s take on the story:
1/ The Coalition government in Fiji and the RFMF Commander wanted Ben Naliva out of the way amid speculation – including by Grubsheet – that his close relationship with Frank Bainimarama made him the most likely person (among two or three others) to lead a military intervention in Fiji, either to uphold the Constitution or prevent Bainimarama from going to jail if he is convicted in his current court proceedings.
2/ The Australian government either agreed or suggested that giving Ben Naliva a senior position in the Australian Army was the best way to get him out of the way and avert the possibility of instability in the RFMF and even a coup. The alternative is that the Australians didn’t know about his past, which seems unlikely, or they simply decided to accept Fiji’s recommendation hoping that enough time had elapsed since 2006 for few people to notice. The Australian‘s front page certainly put paid to that miscalculation.
What happens now? Grubsheet understands that Canberra has a big dilemma. It could say “goodness, we didn’t know that” and announce that the appointment is off. Or it can muddle through hoping the story doesn’t get bigger in the interests of preserving its relationship with the Coalition government in Suva and the RFMF. That strategy will only work if there isn’t a rebellion in the ADF and among former service personnel against the extraordinary precedent of an alleged human rights abuser commanding the legendary “diggers”. And Jacqui Lambie’s intervention is the first signs of that.
So what happens next? Sa bera ni macala. It isn’t yet clear. Except for one thing. Major General Kalouniwai should not have spoken to the Fiji Times and tried to belittle the issue. He has just guaranteed that The Australian will strike back and instead of killing the story, has just ensured that it is given fresh legs.
POSTSCRIPT MONDAY EVENING: The Fiji Sun also carried the RFMF’s pledge to stand by Ben Naliva on its front page today but the Sun is so tardy that its online version regularly isn’t posted for hours after the paper is published and Grubsheet was unable to access it at the time of writing. But the headline and story are now also below and the Sun has fresh quotes from Ben Padarath and Pita Waqavonovono about their alleged ordeal at Naliva’s hands.
The Sun also points out that the immunity granted in the Constitution to coup makers does not extend to offences under the Crime’s Act. Which means that Ben Naliva has no protection under the law if it can be established that he perpetrated human rights abuses.