Latest Update: 31 March 2013
In the last three months the human rights situation in Fiji has deteriorated. The Government’s re-writing of the constitution and the heavy restrictions placed on political parties are ominous signs for the democratic process. And the UK remains deeply concerned by further evidence of the use of torture by state officials.
The period started badly, with the government’s formal rejection of the draft of a new constitution prepared by the Constitution Commission. Unhappy with a number of the provisions it contained, the government announced in January that it would produce a new draft. This was published at the end of March. The Constituent Assembly’s right to hear public submissions on the draft and to amend it has now been removed. This task will now be carried out directly by the government. Members of the public have been given two weeks to debate and comment on the document. The Solicitor General’s Office will receive public feedback until 5 April. The final version is expected a week later, on 12 April. The rejection of the Constitution Commission’s draft, which had been widely consulted on, signalled a serious deterioration in freedom of expression. We are also concerned by the removal of independence and transparency from the drafting process. We will comment on the contents of the new constitution in the next update.
January also saw the promulgation of a new Political Parties Decree, which regulates the formation, operation and funding of political parties. Under the Decree all new and existing parties are required to register. It gave existing parties only 28 days to meet a series of extremely onerous requirements. Those that failed to meet the conditions or chose not to apply for registration will be considered to be deregistered. Any remaining assets will then be transferred to the State. The Decree also places a blanket ban on all public officers from holding party membership. Trade union officials are similarly disbarred. These draconian provisions position Fiji as an outlier by international standards. The Decree severely hampers the ability of political parties to form and operate and threatens more broadly the prospects of a free and fair election. It also places unnecessary restrictions on individual freedoms, particularly freedom of association. By the end of the reporting period three parties had applied for registration. However, allegations of fraud levelled against the Fiji Labour Party have delayed the registration process.
The Fiji Labour Party attempted to bring a legal challenge against the Political Parties Decree, which it claimed was in breach of international conventions signed by Fiji. The High Court dismissed the case, ruling that under the Administration of Justice Decree no decrees can be subject to judicial review. This ruling highlights ongoing concerns regarding the rule of law.
Further evidence of the use of torture by the security forces emerged in March. A nine-minute video was posted on the Internet showing two escaped prisoners being badly beaten and humiliated by security officers following their recapture. The video went viral, and the incident has been denounced in the strongest terms by human rights groups. In a joint statement with the EU Delegation we condemned what took place and called on the Government to sign the UN Convention Against Torture. A full investigation has been promised, but the Prime Minister has since spoken out in defence of his security forces, pledging to “stick by his men” during any such investigation.
The contempt of court case brought against the Fiji Times for publishing material criticising the judiciary concluded in February with a guilty verdict. The newspaper was fined FJD$300,000 (approx £100,000) and editor, Fred Wesley, was given a six month suspended prison sentence.
In the last three months there has been a high number of reported cases of rape and sexual assault. The government’s stated commitment to tackle the issue of violence against women has been welcome. In March the High Commission provided £30,000 to local NGO Medical Services Pacific to provide clinical healthcare and counselling services to survivors of rape and sexual assault.
Despite positive statements on women’s rights, however, it was disappointing to note that permits for marches across Fiji to celebrate International Women’s Day were withdrawn at the last moment, preventing them from going ahead. The police cited concerns over “public order”. We expressed dismay in a joint statement with the EU Delegation, urging the government to respect the right to peaceful assembly.