YABAKI DEFENDS 1997 FIJI CONSTITUTION

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"...why give it a bad name when we haven't taken a chance to work with it?"

By Mithleshni Gurdayal A graduate of the USP Journalism Programme

SUVA, Fiji Islands (June 20, 2000 – Fiji’s Daily Post/ Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---It is wrong to say the 1997 constitution has failed when it has not been fully used? asks Reverend Akuila Yabaki, executive director of the Citizens' Constitutional Forum, reports the Daily Post.

Rev. Yabaki said the constitution has a framework, within which the grievances of people, who feel they have been neglected, could be addressed.

"Why give it a bad name when we haven't taken a chance to work with it for some time and make evaluations later on?" he said. "The 1997 constitution has the framework, which is designed to meet everyone's needs and concerns."

He said the events of May 19 have overtaken the constitution and stopped the provisions envisaged in the document from being enacted into legislation.

Rev. Yabaki said that people's rejection of the Constitution could have stemmed from their not understanding it.

"I must say that more time should have been spent on educating the grassroots people and fully explaining the important provisions and bits and pieces to them. As a result, people would have been better informed and would not have gone against the document," Rev. Yabaki said.

He pointed out that the two mainstream races, Fijians and Indians, didn't know the Constitution.

For Fijians, their unacceptance can be seen in the events of May 19, the ill-fated day on which a democratically elected Parliament was seized by rebels who claim to fight for the recovery of indigenous rights.

Rev. Yabaki said that it has to be understood that the 1997 Constitution had provisions for safeguarding indigenous rights.

Chapter two: The Compact, very clearly outlines these rights, some of which include:

· The ownership of Fijian land according to Fijian custom, the ownership of freehold land and the rights of landlords and tenants under leases of agricultural land;

· The rights of the Fijian and Rotuman people include their right to governance through their separate administrative systems;

· The formation of the government, which has the support of a majority in the House of Representatives. This depends on the electoral support received by the various political parties or pre-election coalitions and if it is necessary to form a coalition government depending on their willingness to come together to form or support a government;

· The formation of government and in that government's conducting the affairs of the nation through the promotion of legislation or the implementation of administrative policies, full account is taken of the interest of all communities;

· To the extent that the interests of different communities are seen to conflict, all the interested parties negotiate in good faith in an endeavor to reach agreement;

· In those negotiations, the importance of Fijian interests as a protective principle continues to apply, so as to ensure that the interests of the Fijian community are not subordinated to the interests of other communities;

· Affirmative action and social justice programs to secure effective equality of access to opportunities, amenities or services for the Fijian and Rotuman people, as well as for other communities;

· The equitable sharing of political power amongst all communities in Fiji is matched by an equitable sharing of economic and commercial power to ensure that all communities fully benefit from the nation's economic progress.

Reacting to the claims that the 1997 constitution has widened the gap between the Fijians and Indians, rather than bringing the two closer, Rev. Yabaki said the constitution cannot be blamed when it hasn't been applied fully. He said this gap between the two races would exist until the two learn to understand each other’s cultures and traditions fully.

"This country can only have a future if the cultural barrier is removed and this could only be achieved through education and flow of accurate information," he said.

On democracy, Rev. Yabaki said that no constitution can guarantee democracy until the concept is guaranteed in peoples' hearts.

"The guarantee has to be in the hearts of the people, who believe that they can live together. Goodwill, tolerance and understanding and all these were being carried in the 1997 constitution - this was not a perfect constitution but was a fair one and if only everyone understood it, things would have been different," he said.

Rev. Yabaki said that if a new constitution was to be written, it would have to include a democratic framework in order to regain the respect of the International community.

"We can do things here and say that the international community is irrelevant. It's not easy to live without them and it has to be seriously noted that we can't survive in isolation," he said.

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