Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama
Fiji First Party
Re: A Human Rights Agenda for Party Candidates
Dear Mr. Bainimarama,
We write to you ahead of the elections scheduled for September 17, 2014 to urge that the Fiji First Party uphold the principles of international human rights law in your political policies and commitments.
Human Rights Watch is an independent organization dedicated to defending and promoting fundamental rights, working in over 90 countries around the world.
Fiji’s first parliamentary election in nearly eight years holds the potential to usher in changes in the way that Fiji addresses human rights. Political candidates should publically commit to concrete changes to end widespread rights abuses and ensure that rights violators are held accountable.
Unfortunately, the current government in Fiji continues to restrict many fundamental rights including freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Since 2009, the police have arbitrarily arrested and detained human rights defenders, trade union leaders, journalists, and others perceived to be critical of the government. The independence of the judiciary is still seriously compromised. These are key challenges that all Fijian political parties should be prepared to speak publicly about during the campaign, and seriously address as a priority after the election, whether in government or in parliamentary opposition.
Freedom of Expression and Human Rights Defenders
Since the 2006 coup, the authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained critics, and instituted heavy censorship. While Fiji lifted the Public Emergency Regulations on January 7, 2012, authorities continue to arrest and detain human rights defenders, journalists, and labor leaders, particularly when they take part in any form of public protest.
The 2010 Media Decree also remains in place, banning any publication that goes “against public interest or order.” Journalists found guilty of violating the vaguely worded decree can be jailed for up to two years and fined up to 100,000 Fiji dollars (USD 53,100). In addition, the Television Amendment Decree, issued in 2012, demands that all broadcasting comply with the provisions of the Media Decree. The Public Order Amendment Decree also broadly restricts the right to freedom of expression.
The principle of freedom of expression is enshrined in international human rights law. Under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, the only restrictions permitted on this right are ones set out in clear law, limited to specific circumstances, and which are strictly necessary, proportionate, and nondiscriminatory.
In Fiji, the media has been facing a government campaign of harassment since 2009. As elections near, allegations of government intimidation and interference with the press have again surfaced. For example, on June 25, the Media Industrial Development Authority (MIDA) called for the investigation of two academics teaching journalism at the University of the South Pacific (USP) because they commented on the military’s use of torture and on the poor state of media freedom in Fiji. MIDA lambasted the pair, claiming the statements were unsubstantiated and could cause irreparable damage to Fiji.
Under the 2013 constitution, significant restrictions in articles 17, 18, and 19 allow the government to interfere with the rights of freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The constitution cites broad limitations to these rights “in the interest of national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, or the orderly conduct of elections.”
We call upon your party to commit to:
- Actively end government interference with the media, and cease harassment and arbitrary arrests.
- Conduct an independent investigation and prosecution, as appropriate, of any officials who have been accused of carrying out activities to restrict the right to freedom of expression or threatening, harassing, or committing violence against human rights defenders.
- Revise the constitution and laws to ensure that the rights of individuals and organizations to defend and promote human rights are protected, including the right to peacefully criticize and protest government policies, including by conducting public assemblies and labor strikes.
Independence of the Judiciary and Failure of Courts to Uphold Rights Protection
There are serious questions about the independence of the Fijian judiciary. The current government has continually failed to uphold the rule of law and has encroached on the independence of the judiciary. The courts themselves have often failed to uphold basic rights, such as using broadly defined contempt provisions to limit freedom of expression and silence the media.
For example, in 2013 the High Court charged the nongovernmental organization, Citizen’s Constitutional Forum (CCF), and its director Reverend Akuila Yabaki, with contempt of court following the reprinting of a report by the United Kingdom Law Society critiquing the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Fiji. The High Court found both CCF and Yabaki guilty on the grounds that the publication was intended to scandalize the court and undermine the judiciary in Fiji. The court ordered CCF to pay a fine and court costs approximating $USD 12,000. In addition, Yakabi received a 3 months prison sentence (suspended for 12 months) and was ordered to pay a fine of approximately $USD 2,300.
Human Rights Watch urges your party to publicly commit to:
- Uphold the fundamental right to an independent judiciary and public prosecution, and desist from taking any actions that undermine those principles;
- Formulate policies that will lead to the implementation of reforms to protect judicial independence from interference by the government and the military.
The 2013 constitution recognizes workers’ rights to join a union and participate in union activities, but it also simultaneously provides broad limitations for the “purpose of regulating the registration of trade unions” and the “collective bargaining process.” Those limitations serve to seriously undermine the exercise of those core worker rights. Similarly, the law places problematic restrictions on the right to freedom of association, which can be curbed in the interest of “national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, or the orderly conduct of elections.”
The current government has used these broadly worded provisions to curtail activities of workers’ organizations and undermine the ability of trade unions to fully defend the rights of their members. For example, in July 2013 the government deployed large numbers of police and soldiers to Lautoka Mill to intimidate Fiji sugar workers who were voting on whether to go on strike to demand an increase in wages and highlight work safety concerns. The mill management allegedly threatened to turn workers’ names over to the government.
Your party should publically commit to:
- Ensure the realization of core labor rights, including the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, the prevention of any sort of discrimination, and an end to forced labor and child labor.
- Take clear steps to ensure these principles, outlined in core International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions that the government of Fiji has already ratified, are reflected in Fijian law, policy, and practice.
- Publicly commit to supporting amendments to article 20 on “employment relations” in the current constitution (following a broad, participatory process and two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament) and bring it into compliance with international labor rights standards ratified by Fiji, and specifically, revoke restrictions contained in article 20 for the purposes of regulating “the registration of trade unions” and the “collective bargaining process.”
The 2013 constitution contains onerous restrictions that allow the government to restrict fundamental rights with ease and guarantee far-reaching immunity for past human rights abuses. We call on your party to publically commit to a process for revising the constitution to eliminate these amnesties for rights abuses, and ensure that the revised constitution fully conforms with international human rights standards.
In Chapter 10 of the constitution, “absolute and unconditional” immunity is granted to those responsible for past human rights abuses and extra-constitutional seizures of power. There are no limits to this immunity. The constitution explicitly states that the immunity provisions shall never be revoked or altered, nor can they ever be subjected to judicial review. This effectively amounts to a whitewash of past rights abuses.
We call on your party to publically commit to:
- Initiate a process of revising the constitution to ensure that rights and freedoms are protected at all times, including during emergency situations in accordance with international law;
- Specifically remove exemptions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association alongside removing problematic provisions under “employment relations.”
- Bring the constitution, alongside all other national laws, into line with the standards set forth in international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
The upcoming elections are an important opportunity for candidates from all political parties to proactively address the human rights situation in Fiji, and publicly set out their policies in how they will restore rights-respecting governance in the country.
As Fiji First has not publicized your human rights manifesto, we do not yet have a comprehensive idea about your party’s commitments. In the past, your party has pledged to safeguard the freedom of all Fijians, but at the same time has stated the party intends to uphold the implementation of the current constitution. Yet, as mentioned above, the current constitution contains numerous articles that effectively allow the government to restrict fundamental rights. The Fiji First Party should make it a policy priority to amend all national legislation to end restrictions on rights.
Human Rights Watch urges your party to develop a comprehensive human rights policy that elaborates specifically how you intend to address the human rights issues in Fiji. By doing so, your party can help further clarify your policies on important rights issues.
Thank you for your immediate attention to these important matters.
Deputy Asia Director
Human Rights Watch