NEW ZEALAND OFFERS HELP ON CONTROVERSIAL FIJI BILL

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By Maika Nagalu

SUVA, Fiji (FijiSUN, June 20) - New Zealand is willing to fund an expert on South Africa’s Truth Commission to help improve the Fiji government’s proposed Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said he was given the assurance by New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who promised to pay all expenses to fly Father Michael Lapsley over and advise the Government on how to bridge division in Fiji over the controversial bill. Father Michael, who now resides in New Zealand, was a member of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s reconciliation commission that was activated when apartheid fell and Nelson Mandela came into power in South Africa.

"The New Zealand prime minister told me they are willing to help Fiji out through this Reconciliation Bill if we need help," Qarase said yesterday. "She told me that they would pay everything should we need them."

The Prime Minister said they had not asked New Zealand to help out just yet and would wait to see the result of public submissions on the Bill to the Justice, Law and Order Committee.

The Bill has come under fire since it was tabled in Parliament. Political parties have accused the government of trying to push it through to ensure the freedom of those jailed for their part in the May 19, 2000, coup.

Fiji Law Society president Graham Leung raised concern that in light of Fiji’s history, the creation of a legal eligibility that allowed the grant of an amnesty for treason was abhorrent and unacceptable. "If the Bill is passed, persons convicted of coup-related offences would be entitled to apply for and be granted pardon, short-circuiting the judicial process and escaping criminal responsibility for their actions," he said. "The society is concerned that at a time when the whole world was moving in a direction of tightening laws against terrorists and terrorism, Fiji wanted to pass a law that retrospectively licensed terrorism."

Leung warned that if the Bill was passed it could threaten the existing government and any future government. Former South African Truth and Reconciliation commissioner and human rights attorney Richard Lyster said there were difficulties in setting up a truth commission. "One sort of thinks about a commission in terms of a charismatic leader, who leads the commission and a bunch of commissioners. In fact, it’s a huge entity. It’s way beyond just the commission itself. It has an infrastructure. It has staff, it has resources, it has vehicles. It has a whole range of things. There’s an enormous lot that should go on behind the scenes in setting up a truth commission. It’s a huge task," he said.

"The most vital aspect is choosing the people who are going to sit on the commission. And that is very fundamental to the success or failure of the commission." Lyster said he doubted the commission would have been as successful without Archbishop Tutu, an internationally recognized peacemaker.

June 21, 2005

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