Latest Update: 31 December 2013
Progress on democracy has been sustained in the last three months. The government has set aside money for elections in the 2014 national budget, international experts visited Fiji to advise the government on preparations for polling, and the electoral roll was made available for inspection by political parties and members of the public. However, there have been delays in appointing the Electoral Commission and Supervisor of Elections, and the release of electoral law is still awaited. Parties have complained that new information-gathering powers extended to the Registrar of Elections undermine the political opposition.
The 2014 budget was announced in November. FJD$15m (£4.8m) has been committed for elections and a further FJD$ 7m (£2.3m) for parliamentary improvements. The government estimates the total cost of holding elections will be FJD$ 40m (£12.9m), with the remainder expected to come from international partners.
Six experts were funded by New Zealand, Australia and the EU to provide technical advice to the government in preparing for the elections. This includes identifying the material needs for polling, and assistance with the drafting of electoral law. Promulgation of the new legislation will be the next big milestone for the process, anticipated early in 2014.
In December the National Register of Voters, containing the details of 540,000 registered voters, was made available for inspection by political parties and members of the public; all were all encouraged to check and amend the roll, and register to vote if they have not already done so. Electronic voter registration for Fijians living overseas began in New Zealand and is set to continue in Australia and the UK in 2014.
In the last three months political parties have started organising in regional centres around the country. But delays to the release of the electoral law, which will define the rules for participating in the elections, have prevented parties from moving into full campaign mode and slowed voter education initiatives by NGOs.
Parties have also complained that recent amendments to the Political Parties Decree, granting wider powers to the Registrar of Elections to collect financial information about political parties, individual officers and family members, undermine the political opposition.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (GMAG) discussed Fiji at the end of September. CMAG cited the new Constitution as a positive step towards the restoration of democracy and welcomed progress on elections. The group urged the rapid establishment of an independent electoral commission, committing to review Fiji’s status in the Commonwealth once credible elections have taken place. These decisions were reaffirmed by Commonwealth Heads of Government in Sri Lanka in November.
During the national budget announcement in November police disrupted a silent protest taking place outside the Fijian Parliament. 14 protesters wearing t-shirts calling for transparency and accountability in the preparation of the budget were arrested and questioned under the Public Order Act. They were later released without charge.
In October Amnesty International questioned whether any formal investigation had taken place in the torture case involving two escaped prisoners (reported in previous updates). In November police announced that statements had been taken from suspects involved in the case and that investigations were continuing.
The International Labour Organisation Governing Body has postponed a decision on whether to establish a Commission of Inquiry on Fiji to its next session in March 2014. A Commission of Inquiry was proposed by international trade union bodies earlier this year to examine outstanding allegations of abuses of workers’ rights, including restrictions on freedom of association and the right to organise.
Update: 30 September 2013
There have been further advances in Fiji over the last three months towards the restoration of democracy. On 6 September the President gave assent to a new constitution. It sets out the framework for elections and the institutional arrangements for Fiji’s future democracy. This has prompted a spirited public debate, the four registered political parties have started organising, and media coverage of the political process has increased. These are key building blocks for elections scheduled next year. The government now has a maximum of 12 months to prepare for elections.
A joint mission from the European Union, Commonwealth Secretariat and New Zealand visited Fiji in July, at the invitation of the government, to conduct an elections needs assessment. The government has accepted the joint report’s recommendations and is working with foreign partners to prepare for elections.
An advertisement for the position of Elections Supervisor has been released, and electronic registration of Fijian voters overseas will begin in October. The drafting of electoral law and the appointment of an Electoral Commission are the next big milestones. The UK is supporting this process through the EU, which is sending elections experts to Fiji.
Recent developments have been welcomed by the international community as a positive sign for the restoration of democracy. Minister for the Commonwealth, Hugo Swire, said that the publication of the constitution was “an important step forward towards the holding of free and fair elections in Fiji in 2014; a pre-requisite for the restoration of democracy and the long-term stability of Fiji.”
The constitution contains a number of amendments to the draft version circulated in March, including an expanded Bill of Rights. But in preserving nearly all of the decrees passed since 2006 until the first sitting of a new Parliament, many restrictions on individual rights – particularly freedom of expression, assembly, association and workers’ rights – are perpetuated. In all cases decrees take primacy over the constitution where they conflict.
The constitution has received a mixed reception from civil society groups and political parties. Amnesty International said the constitution “weakens human rights protections”. Human Rights Watch criticised, among other things, the sweeping immunity provisions it contains for those involved in previous coups. The United Front for a Democratic Fiji, a coalition of three of the four registered political parties, led a small peaceful protest outside the President’s official residence, Government House, on the day of assent. 14 people were detained and questioned by police but were released without charge later that day.
However, the four registered political parties have begun to organise ahead of polling next year, although none are yet in full campaigning mode. The political space in the media has also begun to widen. In the last three months newspapers have carried more stories expressing the views of parties, including some criticism of the government.
With UK funding, local NGO, the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF), is working to educate and engage youth groups across Fiji in democratic systems and processes, ahead of elections. Young people make up a significant proportion of the electorate, yet nobody under the age of 29 has voted previously in national elections. The project, entitled “Strengthening civilian constitutional democracy”, is worth £34,000.
Sentencing has been handed down in the contempt of court case against CCF and its Executive Director, Reverend Akuila Yabaki (reported in the last update). CCF received a fine of FJD$20,000 (approx £6,700), while Yabaki was handed a three-month prison sentence, suspended for 12 months.
A recent survey conducted by the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre revealed high levels of violence against women. According to the research – the most extensive of its kind carried out in Fiji in a decade – more than three in five women in Fiji (64%) have experienced physical or sexual violence or both by a husband or intimate partner.
Update: 30 June 2013
The last three months has seen positive signs on the restoration of democracy. Four political parties have been registered and the political space has begun to widen, encouraging public debate. But two individual cases feed ongoing concerns about freedom of expression and rule of law.
Despite some concerns about the restrictive nature of the Political Parties Decree, between May and June four political parties were registered. Each party has already met – or intends to meet – the short deadline for disclosure of their assets and liabilities to the state. Parties have been permitted to meet and organise internally. And they have also taken advantage of a relaxing of regulations allowing for public meetings and consultations on the constitution. But it is not yet clear whether this will continue beyond the constitution’s publication, which has been delayed until July. Parties have also complained of monitoring by police and military. And reports regarding the intimidation of civil society and media organisations continue to surface.
The UK has been vocal in urging a return to parliamentary democracy in Fiji through free and fair elections. Minister for the Commonwealth, Hugo Swire, took the opportunity to reiterate this call publicly during a visit to Papua New Guinea in April. The UK, alongside the EU and the Commonwealth Secretariat, joined a Coordinating Committee for elections, chaired by the Attorney General. This is another positive sign for the process. We are considering what practical support the UK can offer to election preparations.
There has been continued progress on voter registration. A third phase of Electronic Voter Registration (EVR) has seen the total number of Fijians registered to vote rise to: 525,000 (over 80% of the eligible voter population). Registration of Fijians living overseas is expected to commence next month.
In May, one of Fiji’s most prominent civil society organisations, the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF), and its Executive Director, Reverend Akuila Yabaki, were found guilty of contempt of court. Charges were brought by the Attorney General’s Office in reaction to third party statements run in CCF’s newsletter, which criticised the judiciary. This gives rise to serious concerns regarding freedom of speech. Sentencing is yet to be handed down. However, lawyers representing the Attorney General’s Office have called for a fine of no less than FJD$100,000 (approx £35,000) and a prison sentence of six months for Reverend Yabaki. A representative of the High Commission attended the sentencing mitigation hearing. We will continue to monitor over the next quarter.
As reported on in the last update, similar proceedings were brought against the Fiji Times newspaper and its Editor, Fred Wesley, earlier in the year. Both were found guilty of contempt of court and faced stiff penalties including a large fine for the newspaper and a suspended prison sentence for Mr. Wesley.
As yet no results have been published of the investigation into the circumstances surrounding a video which appeared on the internet showing two recaptured prisoners being beaten and humiliated by security forces. Amnesty International has questioned whether the promised investigation is being carried out, while UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has cautioned against a cover up. The police have said that enquiries are ongoing but have refused to comment any further.
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.