Until now, the Australian Defence Force has publicly stuck to the story that it took the word of the Fijian government and the RFMF that Colonel Ben Naliva was a suitable candidate to become Deputy Commander of the 7th Brigade of the ADF. But buried in an official statement reported by the Fiji Times is the killer line that before he was appointed, the Australians were aware of the human rights abuse allegations against Nailiva that are now the subject of a great deal of angst.
It has taken the Fijian media a long time to cotton on to the story that broke not on “social media” – as the Home Affairs Minister, Pio Tikoduadua and the RFMF Commander, Major General Ro Jone Kalouniwai keep falsely suggesting – but on the front page of The Australian, the country’s most influential newspaper.
Pio Tikoduadua – someone Grubsheet thought better of – said he “wasn’t going to react to social media reports” of torture on the part of Ben Nailiva. Minister, The Australian isn’t “social media” and neither is Victor Lal’s Fijileaks, where the story first appeared. Nor for that matter is Grubsheet, which was on Facebook for a time because so many Fijians use it but is now back on our news commentary website that began 13 years ago.
So why do Tikoduadua and Commander Kalouniwai keep trying to downplay the significance of these stories? Because placing an alleged human rights abuser in a command position in the Australian Defence Force is a severe embarrassment for both Fiji and Australia. Fiji is trying to ride out the embarrassment locally by Tikoduadua telling the Fiji Times that “these are only allegations”, not hard evidence , that Ben Naliva actually committed human rights abuses. But there is a fundamental problem with this defence.
You could easily say, for instance, that the widespread human rights abuses and torture by former military governments in Chile and Argentina were “just allegations”. But only because there were no official inquiries into those abuses and no-one was brought to account for them, at least when those juntas were in power. Which is precisely the same situation in Fiji.
The Fijian media has begun to run the accounts of this alleged abuse, including an interview by the Fiji Times with the human rights activist, Pita Waqavonovono, who slams the RFMF Commander for rejecting allegations of abuse at the Camp during the coup of 2006. This is repeating some of what we already know from interviews with The Australian by Waqavonovono, Sam Speight and Ben Padarath. And there are plenty of others who can attest to the same thing, including Laisa Digitaki, Virisila Buadromo and Richard Naidu. So Ro Kalouniwai is on a hiding to nothing trying to peddle a narrative that there is “nothing to see here”.
The game changer is the admission by the ADF that it was aware of the human rights abuse allegations against Ben Naliva but relied on the advice from Fiji that his record didn’t prevent him from taking the job. This is the “smoking gun” that critics of the appointment now have to be able to have it reversed. Because it is simply inconceivable to most Australians that a foreigner with torture allegations hanging over them would be given the job of commanding 3500 Australian troops.
Just being a foreigner under the circumstances is a problem. For most senior positions in the Australian public service, you either have to be an Australian citizen or in the process of becoming an Australian. So to have a foreigner in a senior position in the military is unprecedented in the first place. And to have a foreigner accused of human rights abuses just isn’t going to happen.
The notion that this story is going to go away is a fantasy. Human Rights Watch is onto it but more importantly so is the independent Australian Senator, Jacqui Lambie, a former soldier who has already gone public with her objections to the appointment and is reported to be planning to go on the attack against the top Australian military brass at forthcoming Senate hearings.
So Ben Nailiva is a very hot potato in Australian politics. And the admission by the ADF that it knew of the allegations against him has just made it a lot more likely that this hot potato will be thrown back to Suva to become just as big a hot potato in Fiji. Because if it is true that Colonel Naliva was found a sinecure in the Australian military to get him out of the way because as a Bainimarama loyalist, he was most likely to mount a coup, Pio Tikoduadua and Jone Kalouniwai need him back home like a hole in the head.
Unfortunately for them, that might just be what’s about to happen, reading between the lines of the latest reports in today’s Fiji Sun. (Thursday)