The Fiji Times
ALL IS NOT WELL
“IN view of these independent accounts on the rather disturbing state of Fiji’s existing human rights situation, one wonders what “remarkable achievements and recognition” Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan is talking about” — Mahendra Chaudhry
ONE must take with a huge pinch of salt the recent assertion by Fiji’s Geneva-based permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Shameem, that Fiji has made “remarkable achievements and recognition in the areas of peacekeeping, multilateralism, human rights, climate change, inclusivity and sovereignty”.
As a former judge, who had earned a reputation for her advocacy of human rights and other democratic values, it often comes as something of a shock to read her frequent pronouncements regarding Fiji’s commitment to such values.
We, who live in Fiji, know better. No doubt, considerable effort has gone into crafting a favourable image of Fiji albeit the “autocratic” rule of the Bainimarama government both pre and post-2014 general elections.
An image created at considerable expense through the efforts of ambassadors such as Ambassador Shameem and the New York-based public relations company Qorvis — in which Fiji’s global advocacy on Climate Change played a crucial role.
But rhetoric is one thing. Reality is another. Fortunately, not everyone, even on the international arena, is fooled by such publicity stunt.
Least of all the members of the Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council which undertook the Third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Fiji in November 2019 and met in February/March 2020 to hear Fiji’s response.
Secondly, there are other international bodies that monitor existing conditions in countries and carry out independent reviews.
One such is the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) based in New Zealand which tracks human rights performance of countries.
Extremely poor human rights ratings
It has given Fiji extremely low ratings. In June 2019, HRMI produced ratings for a sample of 19 countries including Fiji.
HRMI findings: On empowerment rights, it gave Fiji a score of four-point-six out of 10.
“Compared with the other countries in the Pacific, Fiji is performing worse than average on empowerment rights. Fiji’s Empowerment score of 4.6 suggests that many people are not enjoying their civil liberties and political freedoms,” it said.
It rated a miserable score of 3.7 for respect on the right to freedom of association and assembly.
On the right to opinion and freedom of expression the score of 3.6 is equally bad.
Both ratings put Fiji near the bottom of the table.
The low scores reflect the Bainimarama government’s attempts since 2009 to remove trade union and worker rights, and impose restrictions on the media and people’s right to speak openly and criticise the government.
An article by Josef Benedict, posted on the Australian National University’s (ANU), DEVPOLICY BLOG titled “Fiji’s review at the Human Rights Council highlights lack of progress on civic freedoms” (November 29, 2019) says:
“While the country enjoys a positive image on the international stage, for many citizens of the South Pacific’s largest island nation, and its media, the reality is anything but.
“An array of restrictive laws has been deployed by the authorities to silence dissent. Sedition provisions in the Crimes Act have been used by the Fijian authorities to target the media and Opposition politicians while the Public Order (Amendment) Act 2017 has also been used to harass journalists and civil society.
“The Media Industry Development Act 2010 has created a chilling effect for media and press freedom. Other crude tactics have also been used by the state.
“A 16-year-old-boy was allegedly assaulted by security officials for posting on Facebook criticising the prime minister.
“More recently, the government has set its sights on weakening the power of trade unions and their strong voting bloc. Over the past two years the Fiji Trades Union Congress has been denied permission to hold peaceful marches on at least six occasions, without a valid reason.
“All these strict controls allowed Mr
Bainimarama to hold on to power again in 2018,” the author said.
I mentioned earlier that members of the Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council in its UPR session in February/ March this year were not fooled by the assurances of the high powered Fiji delegation to the session led by Acting Chief Justice Kamal Kumar, that all was cosy in our Pacific paradise.
He was supported by the Director of Public Prosecutions Christopher Pryde, the then Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho and Commissioner of Prisons Francis Kean.
The very people who as holders of independent constitutional offices, should not have been there pushing the government’s wagon. Where is the principle of separation of powers?
It is clearly evident from the recommendations of the Working Group that members were aware of the ground realities in Fiji. I pick a few samples:
US: “… safeguard freedom of expression to ensure that criminal and speech related legislation are not misused to suppress media, civil society and opposition politicians’ criticisms of the government.
“Promote freedom of assembly by ensuring that criminal statutes eg Section 15 of the Public Order Act are not used to curtail workers rights to form and join trade unions and to assemble.
“…take measures to permit lawful labour, political and social protests and to safeguard activists and human rights defenders’ rights to speak and peacefully assemble freely without harassment, and unimpeded by inappropriately applied administrative impediments.”
NZ: “…take steps to ensure that the rights of freedom of expression and association in Fiji, including those of workers and employers, can be exercised without fear of undue interference by the authorities, including progressing legislative reform.”
Canada: “Promote workers right to better defend their interests and views through lawful permits to peacefully demonstrate without fear of harassment or detention.”
UK was among a host of countries that called for a review of decrees/laws that restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly: Public Order Act, Media Industry Development Decree.
Germany: “Bring legislation on freedom of expression, association and assembly into line with international human rights standards, in particular by repealing the Media Industry Development Decree 2010”.
Vanuatu: “…establish a transparent and effective mechanism for public consultations with civil society organisations in the preparation of law and policy, including the periodic review.”
Human Rights Commission
The Fiji Human Rights and Anti Discrimination Commission also came under stern scrutiny vis a vis the 1993 Paris Principles.
The Paris convention requires national human rights institutions (NHRIs) to be autonomous, its independence guaranteed under the Constitution, to reflect pluralism in terms of membership and be adequately resourced and empowered to carry out its functions effectively.
Members states including Australia, called for all necessary steps to be taken to ensure the accreditation of the Human Rights and Anti Discrimination Commission under the Paris Principles.
India: called for the implementation of “legislative measures to fully align” the
HRADC with the Paris Principles and to strengthen its legal framework “so it can act independently, with competence to receive and investigate complaints in line with the Paris Principles.
At the UPR session in March, Fiji made much of the fact that it has now ratified all nine core international instruments on human rights.
This includes the Convention Against Torture.
It proudly claimed it was embarking on a pilot project to ensure greater awareness of the rights of persons in custody through the FHP (First Hour Procedure) — making a legal counsel available within the first hour of arrest.
However, the effectiveness of the FHP is undermined by incidents of continuing police brutality against persons at the time of arrest.
Just the other day, we saw media reports of a person who was allegedly (according to eye witness accounts) brutally assaulted by nine police officers in Nadi at the time of arrest.
The person died from the injuries but police originally claimed he was fatally injured after jumping from a two-storey building to avoid arrest.
The case is now under an internal police investigation.
There have been other recent instances of police brutality.
The case in April when a man sustained serious injuries after he was allegedly thrown off a bridge by police officers.
The other was of prisoner Jone Masirewa, who died while in remand at the Natabua Remand Centre, also in April.
HRADC did act in these cases with director Ashwin Raj calling for prompt and transparent investigations.
In both instances, officers were later charged following investigation by the commission.
Brutality in prisons
A respected UK newspaper The Guardian published a lengthy report on 30 August 30, 2020 titled Investigation into police and prison violence blocked by Fiji authorities, whistleblowers say.
In its sub heading it claimed: “Exclusive: Allegations of brutality in Fiji’s prisons have been effectively ignored by the government’s human rights commission, insiders claim.
The article did publish a denial by Ashwin Raj, who said, complaints were “investigated in an independent and impartial manner”.
One of the whistleblowers, a former employee of the commission alleged he witnessed “complaints received by the commission “pushed under the rug”, and was told that unfavourable findings against State institutions, like the police or prisons, could jeopardise the director’s position.”
The whistleblowers, however, also claimed that the commission was often denied access to investigate complaints against the Prisons Department and the Police.
The whistleblower claimed there were several instances when the commission was denied access to prisons to investigate complaints of prisoners being assaulted, with Commissioner Kean saying that the cases will be investigated internally.
“The head of the corrections service would say ‘our own team will investigate’ or ‘we do not allow you’.
Similar claims, The Guardian said, were also made by Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific researcher.
She alleged that Fiji’s corrections service had “blocked any scrutiny of what is happening in the prisons.
“What that means is independent agencies like … UN agencies are not getting access to the prisons.
“It does not surprise me to hear that the Fiji human rights commission is also not getting access.”
Schuetze said Fiji’s legal framework lacked “an independent institution that sits above the hierarchy of the police, in the prison system or even outside the military, to review complaints of mistreatment at the hands of those agencies”.