Thursday, February 11, 2010

UN Rights Council: Demand End to Fiji Abuses

by Jessica Evans who is a fellow in the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

Published in: The Age -  11 February 2010

Universal Periodic Review of Fiji.WHILE tourists flock to Fiji's white beaches in search of underwater paradise, the country's military officers threaten human rights defenders with a different underwater experience.

One human rights defender described being accosted by 20 soldiers in the month following the December 2006 coup: ''We were lying down and they continued to beat us up and whack us in the head ... One thing that I still remember and hear today is, 'I could kill you, cut you into pieces and feed you to the sharks and no one will ever know where you are.' ''

Welcome to military-ruled Fiji.

When Fiji appears before the United Nations Human Rights Council today for a routine review of its rights record, ambassadors sitting in chilly Geneva should strike from their minds the idyllic picture of sun, sand, and sea. More than three years after the army's coup d'etat, the ambassadors need to call the military government to account for its ongoing, widespread human rights violations. Today Fiji is controlled by military officers who violently cracked down on basic human rights. Its independent judiciary is a shadow of its former self, dominated by a ''new legal order'' issued by the military government. A once free and vibrant press has been stifled. And democratic elections are out of the question for the foreseeable future.

UN member states should press Fiji to cease immediately the harassment and arbitrary detention of its people, revoke abusive provisions of the Public Emergency Regulations 2009, make a public commitment to judicial independence, and end unlawful government interference with human rights organisations.

In an attempt to garner international support using south-south allegiances, Fiji's military government blames two South Pacific ''bullies'' - Australia and New Zealand - with their ''extensive diplomatic and financial resources'' for tarnishing the country's human rights reputation. But in their rush to make new friends, Fiji's generals forget that south-south solidarity should be with the people, not with dictators.

And the people of Fiji are suffering. Since the coup, severe beatings by security personnel caused the deaths of at least four people in government custody - the killers of three of these men walk free. Members of the security forces were also responsible for arbitrarily arresting, threatening and attacking peaceful political activists and human rights defenders. Presidential decrees perpetuate impunity by granting immunity for security force personnel.

Censorship is alive and well, with Information Ministry officers, often accompanied by soldiers, operating inside the country's newsrooms since last April. Censors have now branched out to block blogs critical of the government. Meanwhile, the penalty for sedition has nearly tripled under the Crimes Decree 2009, climbing to seven years' imprisonment. And the latest - government critics can be stripped of their pensions following a December 31 presidential decree.

The military abrogated the constitution on April 10, 2009, leading to the removal of all judicial officers from office. Since then, Fiji's military government has systematically undermined access to justice and the independence of the judiciary. The government has reconstituted courts and commissions to its own specifications, improperly intervened in the licensing of lawyers, and legislated to prohibit legal challenges of its actions. Even judicial officers appointed by the military government are not safe.

On December 31, President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau unilaterally fired three magistrates, providing neither reasons nor due process.

Fiji's ruler, Commodore ''Frank'' Voreqe Bainimarama, justifies the coup, the eight years of military dictatorship anticipated before elections slated for 2014, and a continuing military hand in governance as necessary to ''fix'' democracy in Fiji. This is despite last April's Fiji Court of Appeal ruling that held the coup unlawful.

UN member states should demonstrate that the world is monitoring Fiji's record of human rights violations and does not like what it sees. In Geneva, they should ask Fiji hard questions about its human rights record, demand more than standardised responses, and make recommendations that reflect the basic principle that white sandy beaches - or anything else - do not justify the violation of fundamental human rights.


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