The human rights situation in Fiji has remained poor, despite steps taken by the interim government, notably on restoring democracy, which initially gave the appearance of progress. By the end of the year, 80% of those eligible had been registered to vote in elections scheduled for 2014. With UK support a Constitution Commission conducted widespread public consultations, delivering the first draft of a new constitution in December but this was subsequently rejected by the interim government in early 2013. The lifting of the Public Emergency Regulations at the beginning of 2012 was also briefly a cause for some optimism. However, this set of highly restrictive measures was immediately replaced with an amended Public Order Decree, which gave continuing powers to the interim government to restrict the right of public assembly and freedom of expression, and extended additional powers of detention to the military.
Little changed with regard to other human rights. Media freedom remains severely limited. Although government censors have been removed from newsrooms, the application of a range of punitive measures means that self-censorship now prevails. The judiciary remains compromised. Those who criticise the government continue to face harassment and intimidation. Women are under-represented at all levels of society and face high levels of violence. Fiji’s record on workers’ rights is one of the worst in the world. In the latter part of 2012, there was a spate of allegations about police and military brutality, including the use of torture.
The UK’s main objectives for 2012 were the lifting of the Public Emergency Regulations, greater respect for women’s rights and progress towards the re-establishment of democracy. Women’s rights remain a major concern.
The coming year will be another crucial period for Fiji. Voter registration will continue, and a new decree setting out the rules for the registration of political parties is expected. This is likely to have considerable repercussions for Fiji’s established opposition parties and their ability to participate in national elections. We will support ongoing action to prepare the country for a return to democracy. We will continue to engage with the interim government on human rights – specifically on the issues of torture and mistreatment in custody, raising individual cases where necessary. We will seek recognition and protection of women’s rights and the easing of measures that inhibit freedom of expression, especially within the media. Targeted use of project funds and coordinated action, in particular with the EU and UN, will help us to make progress against these goals.
Fiji has been without a democratically elected government since the last military coup in 2006. It is the interim government’s stated aim to hold national elections again by September 2014. In April, at the invitation of the interim government, a UN Needs Assessment Mission visited Fiji to evaluate technical requirements and provide advice. In July, the Elections Office commenced a nationwide campaign of electronic voter registration. By the end of the year, over 500,000 people, representing 80% of the country’s eligible voter population, had been registered at centres across the country.
Another step in the process to restore democracy initially appeared to have been taken with the completion of a first draft of a new constitution. A five-member Constitution Commission, including three women, was appointed by the interim government in May. Under the chairmanship of Professor Yash Ghai, an internationally respected constitutional expert, the commission delivered a draft in December, despite reported interference from the interim government. It followed extensive public consultations, in which over 7,000 submissions were received. The British High Commission provided financial assistance to the Constitution Commission to support public consultations in some of the country’s remotest provinces, including several outlying island groups. (The interim government rejected the draft in early 2013, however, saying it would produce a new draft to be reviewed by a Constituent Assembly selected by the Prime Minister and delivered in March 2013.)
The UK strongly supports a return to full parliamentary democracy in Fiji through credible, transparent and inclusive elections. However, for this to happen it is essential that the public is properly educated about their democratic rights. The FCO funded a project with the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, which has helped to increase awareness of electoral reform and the importance of participation, particularly among women, the young and other marginalised groups. The project achieved some notable successes. Monitoring at 31 of the 71 locations where the Constitution Commission received oral submissions indicated that 39% of submissions were from women; 831 written submissions (11% of the total) were made with the assistance of the project.
The UK was also instrumental in securing additional funding from the EU’s Instrument for Stability.
Freedom of expression and assembly
There are severe limitations on freedom of expression in Fiji. Despite the lifting of the Public Emergency Regulations, the interim government remains highly sensitive to criticism. Although government censors have disappeared from newsrooms, a range of measures have been deployed to ensure that anti-government messages are not disseminated. The threat of heavy penalties, including large fines and prison sentences, for those in breach of the Media Decree has caused most media outlets to self-censor. Through the issuing of short licences, which can be revoked without warning, broadcasting companies have been kept under tight control. More persistent and vocal opponents have been silenced by the interim government through direct threats and warnings carried on the front pages of newspapers. The result is an intimidating environment in which few feel able to speak up.
Two cases illustrate how contempt of judicial process has been used to suppress freedom of expression. The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF), a prominent civil society organisation, and the Fiji Times both faced charges for publishing statements by third parties criticising the judiciary. In the case against the Times, the Solicitor General has called for the High Court to impose the maximum fine and a six-month jail term for the editor, Fred Wesley. At the end of 2012, Mr Wesley had still not been sentenced. The High Commission observed the preliminary hearing in the CCF case and will continue to monitor proceedings in 2013.
In a more encouraging sign, the relaxation of requirements to obtain meeting permits for the purpose of discussing the constitution helped to foster a more open and participatory public dialogue. Certain groups, including the Methodist Church and political parties, were able to meet legally (with some restrictions) for the first time in several years. But there have been reports of arbitrary disruptions of other meetings. In July, 14 members of the Fiji Labour Party were arrested and taken in for questioning for holding a meeting without a permit. Trade unions have faced similar unannounced interruptions of their meetings.
Access to justice and the rule of law
The absence of an independent judiciary and the inability of citizens to challenge the decisions of government are matters of serious concern. Since the abrogation of Fiji’s previous constitution in 2009, law-making has taken the form of presidential decree. Decrees are often passed into law at short notice and without any form of public debate or scrutiny. All decrees are absolute and un-appealable. The Administration of Justice Decree (2009) prevents legal challenges against any decree promulgated since December 2006. In 2012, the State Proceedings Decree further reduced the legal accountability of government officials and civil servants by granting them immunity against prosecution relating to any public statements made in either a professional or a personal capacity.
In January, the Law Society Charity (UK) published a report entitled “Fiji: the rule of law lost”, which concluded that rule of law no longer operates in Fiji. The report cited serious concerns about the independence of the judiciary, the competence and independence of the prosecution service, restrictions placed upon the legal profession, the absence of democracy and the inability of citizens to challenge the decisions of government. Allegations made by two former judges give credence to the report’s findings. In September, a previous Fiji Court of Appeal judge, Justice William Marshall QC, claimed interference in the conduct of cases by the Attorney General. In November, Greg Bullard became Fiji’s shortest-serving resident magistrate, being dismissed, with no reason given, after six weeks in the post. Mr Bullard reported being unlawfully arrested and detained at Nadi airport before being deported to Australia. He stated afterwards that the judiciary, the legal profession and the Independent Legal Services Commission (ILSC) in Fiji are all controlled directly or indirectly by the Chief Justice.
In August, Laisenia Qarase, former Prime Minister and leader of the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party, was sentenced to one year in prison after being found guilty by the High Court on abuse of office charges. The offences on which he was convicted took place over 20 years ago, prompting claims that the case was politically motivated. Mr Qarase’s government was overthrown by the current regime in the coup of 2006. The conviction prevents Mr Qarase from contesting the 2014 elections. Mahendra Chaudhry, the Fiji Labour Party leader, faces criminal charges relating to alleged tax violations.
The death penalty is abolished for all civilian crimes, but remains in place for certain offences against the Military Code. No executions have been carried out in Fiji since independence in 1970. In December, Fiji abstained on a vote in the UN General Assembly calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
The mistreatment of detainees, including the use of torture, is a matter of serious concern. Fiji is not party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits the use of torture, or to the Convention against Torture.
During 2012, the number of reported cases of police and military brutality increased. In some instances, violence and humiliation has been used as a form of punishment for offenders. The following case is illustrative of the problem and the interim government’s failure to address it. In September, five men escaped from a Suva prison. They were held responsible for a string of violent robberies in the capital. The military was drafted in to help recapture them. Reliable reports indicate that each of the men was badly beaten and tortured on being re-detained. The injuries they sustained were so severe that none of the men could be presented in court for several weeks while they were being treated in hospital. The last prisoner to appear, Epeli Qaraniqio, spent nearly two months in hospital. During this time his right leg was amputated when an open fracture became infected. The High Commission observed the court hearings for the men. We have also raised the case directly with the interim government, calling for a full investigation and the publication of results. The interim government promised to investigate but by the end of the year no investigation had yet been instigated.
The suppression of women’s rights is a serious and ongoing concern. Extreme inequalities of gender persist in Fiji. Deeply entrenched negative societal attitudes towards women and a lack of adequate government protection are the main barriers to progress. Rates of violence against women continue to be some of the highest recorded anywhere in the world. Access to justice, particularly in cases of domestic violence, is poor. Women are also significantly under-represented at all levels of decision-making and are largely excluded from the formal economy and the political arena.
Figures from the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre indicate that 80% of women in Fiji have witnessed some form of violence in the home, 66% have been physically abused by partners and nearly half repeatedly abused, 26% have been beaten while pregnant and 13% have been raped.
Despite the “no-drop” policy of police in cases of domestic violence, few cases go to court. Those that do often result in short sentences or the case being dropped in favour of private mediation. The police response to reports of abuse is often unhelpful, or in some cases harmful. In a stark example this year, a Fijian woman was granted asylum in New Zealand after suffering years of domestic violence ignored by police. The tribunal stated that there had been “a systemic failure by the Fijian police to provide consistent and effective protection for victims of family violence”.
To mark the international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign, the High Commission broadcast a series of awareness messages. These aired on five national radio stations, in the three local languages, for 16 days.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights
In May, police cancelled at the last minute a march in Suva to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, citing safety concerns. The march would have been the first of its kind in Fiji. The cancellation followed a public statement by the Methodist Church against rights for homosexuals. Police told the organisers that initially officers had not realised that it was a march for gay rights. The High Commission published a joint statement with the EU expressing dismay at the cancellation.
There were continued incursions in 2012 on workers’ rights, leading to further complaints by the trade unions which the interim government has failed to address. In September, an International Labour Organization (ILO) Contact Mission was expelled from Fiji following a dispute over its terms of reference (its original mandate was to examine complaints made by local trade unions about the lack of freedom of association). The High Commission issued a joint statement with the EU expressing regret at the aborted mission, which also drew strong condemnation from the ILO Director General. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association subsequently included Fiji in a list of five countries (of 32 examined) with the worst records on employers’ and trade unions’ rights. It urged the interim government to undertake prompt and independent investigations into allegations of physical assault, harassment and intimidation of trade union leaders and members and to permit the return of the Contact Mission. In November, the interim government invited the Contact Mission to return to Fiji in 2013.