BRIDGING THE ETHNIC DIVIDE IN FIJI

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By Susan Kiran Ministry of National Reconciliation, Information and Media Relations

SUVA, Fiji Islands (April 2, 2002 – Daily Post/FijiLive)---Fiji has been, and continues to go through, a tumultuous period of race relations in its less than 32 years of independence.

It would be fair to say that the situation Fiji finds herself in today is the product of 96 years of colonialism and segregation of the Taukei from the Girmityas by the British -- divide and rule to benefit the crown.

Sadly, many have used the race card to benefit themselves and their "causes."

In a space of 13 years (l987 - 2002) the country suffered two military and one civilian coup.

With each came a deepening tear in the fragile relations between the two major ethnic groups.

These tensions are linked with the associated issue of positive discrimination in favor of the indigenous community by successive governments since independence to the point where other communities label the actions as being racist.

The current Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua-led coalition government hasn’t been spared criticism either.

The SDL’s affirmative action policies for indigenous Fijians include the Fijian Education Blueprint and the Social Justice Act.

In terms of international conventions and acceptable human rights practices these affirmative action programs leave Fiji in an interesting and unique position.

Where then does this leave Fiji in terms of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)?

CERD, the most comprehensive international human rights instrument dealing with race related issues, was conceived and adopted by the United Nation’s General Assembly in 1965.

In 1969, before independence, Fiji ratified the CERD.

To date it remains one of 155 countries that have ratified this convention since it came into force in 1969.

Being that Fiji was still a colonial state in 1969, the United Kingdom signed the convention on behalf of Fiji.

After Fiji gained independence in 1970, it ratified the convention on January 11, 1973, as a newly independent state, since the pre-independence ratification of CERD was now invalid.

The ratification however, was made with reservations.

The two major reservations dealt with the electoral system and native land.

As outlined in the convention, elections must take place on the basis of universal and equal suffrage.

Fiji had a communal based electoral system, hence the first reservation.

Fiji’s second reservation had to do with the convention’s provision that everyone has the right to own property.

Fiji’s reservation stemmed from the native land system in Fiji.

In Fiji’s case native land is administered by landowners with the Native Land Trust Board as the trustees.

The NLTB Act prohibits the sale of this land, placing it in direct contravention of CERD’s provisions on the right to own property.

Apart from these major reservations, Fiji has conformed to seven other substantive articles of the convention pertaining to the role of governments in ensuring that racial discrimination does not take place.

As a signatory to the convention, Fiji is bound by the provisions of the convention that compel it to work towards elimination of all forms of racial discrimination in the country.

As defined in CERD, racial discrimination means: "Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin, which, has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social cultural or any other field of public life."

However, Article l in reference to affirmative action goes on further to state: "Special measures taken for the sole purpose of securing adequate advancement of certain racial or ethnic groups or individuals requiring such protection as may be necessary in order to ensure such groups or individuals equal enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall not be deemed racial discrimination, provided, however, that such measures do not, as a consequence, lead to the maintenance of separate rights for different racial groups and that they shall not be continued after the objectives for which there were taken have been achieved."

From the CERD and other similar instruments designed by the United Nations General Assembly, Fiji used the essence of these documents when drawing up the 1997 Constitution in which, lies the Compact and the Bill of Rights.

Contained in the Constitution for the first time, was a provision for the Human Rights Commission.

The Constitution’s Compact has allocations for access and opportunities for all people in the country through affirmative action and social justice programs.

As Human Rights Commission director Dr. Shaista Shameem points out the laws of Fiji against discrimination bind the State and they have been underpinned by the principle of compact between citizen, civil society and the State.

She expressed similar sentiments at last year’s World Conference against Racial, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase has always maintained that the affirmative action policies were intended to bridge the economic and social divide between indigenous Fijians and the other communities.

He said racial tensions in the country could only be alleviated once this divide was closed, and both, the Fijian and Indo-Fijian races were on a level par.

To this end, affirmative actions geared at improving indigenous participation in the education and commerce sectors, both considered to key areas in which Fijians lag behind, have been put into place.

Mr. Qarase said according to the 1996 census, 54 per cent of Fiji’s total population was rural-based and with the majority being Fijians.

The 1997 United Nations Poverty Report revealed that households with the lowest level income were those in rural areas and outer islands -- a large number of them indigenous Fijians.

To prevent a re-visit to 1987 and 2000, Mr. Qarase said pre-emptive action must be taken such as that by his administration, in particular the government’s affirmative action plan, the Fijian Education Blueprint and the 20-year development plan for Fijians.

Mr. Qarase said the government’s most important policy objective was to promote stability and through it, to restore and rebuild confidence among citizens and communities in a move to strengthen the foundation for economic growth and prosperity for all in Fiji.

He has emphasized that the affirmative action does not mean, "Government is deliberately excluding or ignoring other communities. Government will continue to provide through its annual budget affirmative support programs for all those in needs, irrespective of ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, economic or social status," he said.

The setting up of the Ministry of National Reconciliation in the aftermath of May 2000 is a step forward in healing the rift between the two ethnic groups.

The ministry is tasked with carrying out reconciliation not just among indigenous Fijians but between the two major ethnic groups in the country, particularly in the areas worst hit by ethnic tensions during the crisis.

At the end of the day, a government in Fiji, any government for that matter, is the government for all the people -- not just for a selected community because to do otherwise is to deny all the fundamental principles of humanity.

Fiji may not be perfect but it could be a lot worse and as we weave our way through the ethnic minefield, hope springs eternal that one-day people in Fiji irrespective of gender, ethnic, social, religious, political and economic affiliations will live in peaceful co-existence.

For additional reports from Fiji’s Daily Post, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Other News Resources/FijiLive.

For additional reports from FijiLive, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Other News Resources/FijiLive.

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