By Matilda Bogner

As part of a series of articles to mark International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2011, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Office for the Pacific highlights successes and challenges faced in the region during the year.

Matilda Bogner, OHCHR Regional Representative for the Pacific, writes that Fiji is yet to show progress in implementing significant commitments made during a UN human rights review of the country. Incidents in 2011 have continued to raise human rights concerns. However, there is potential to improve and show progress before Fiji comes back for review in 2014.

SUVA, Fiji (OHCHR Regional Office for the Pacific, Dec. 16, 2011) – In 2010, Fiji appeared before the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva and made a series of commitments to progress human rights in the country. Fiji was participating in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process that reviews the human rights record of all UN Member States. Fiji accepted 97 of 103 recommendations.

The recommendations covered a broad range of issues, such as climate change, development, freedom of religion and expression, child rights, women’s rights, cooperation with international human rights mechanisms, constitutional reform and elections. It was important to see Fiji engage in discussions on its human rights record and make public commitments to advance the enjoyment of human rights in the country.

However, 2011 has not seen the alleviation of concerns that were discussed in Geneva and significant recommendations remain unimplemented. The Public Emergency Regulations remain in force, despite the Government’s commitment to lifting them once a proposed media decree was in place. The proposed decree (the Media Industry Development Decree) was promulgated by the President in June 2010.

The Public Emergency Regulations seriously restrict the right to public assembly and freedom of expression, and give the military and other law enforcement personnel broad powers of arrest and detention. They also give the Permanent Secretary for Information powers to prohibit publication or broadcast information ‘deemed a threat to the law and order situation.' Failure to comply with a directive from the Permanent Secretary may result in an order to cease all publications and activities. The Regulations also allow the Fiji Government to refuse applications for permits for marches and meetings and to regulate the use of any public place by three or more people.

Under international law, restrictions imposed as a response to emergencies must be proportional to the situation and applied only to the extent and for the time strictly required by the circumstances. Following the introduction of the emergency regulations in April 2009, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that a "state of emergency should only be used to deal with a dire threat to the security of the nation, not to undermine the fundamental checks and balances of good government."

Other concerns regarding human rights surfaced in February 2011, with a series of allegations involving torture by the military and other forms of pressure against opponents of the Government. International human rights law would require a prompt and impartial investigation of the allegations. However, despite the Government of Fiji’s commitment to such investigations, made during its Geneva review, no such investigation appears to have been carried out.

The Government, mainly through the military and police, also increased pressure against trade unionists in 2011. In February, there were allegations of arbitrary detention and beatings of several union officials. In August, Mr. Daniel Urai, President of the Fiji Trades Union Congress, was detained under the Public Emergency Regulations and charged with unlawful assembly. In late October, he was again detained and held for ten days under the emergency regulations before being charged with urging political violence under the Crimes Decree. On 4 November, the General Secretary of the Fiji Trades Union Congress Mr. Felix Anthony was also detained and held for seven days before being released without charge. Both men had just returned from Australia where they were raising concerns about the treatment of unions in Fiji. Again, it seems that the commitment made in Geneva by the Government of Fiji "to put an immediate end to attacks, harassment, intimidation and detention with regard to journalists, critics and human rights activists" (recommendation 75) is yet to be honoured.

In June 2011, the President promulgated the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree, which disallows professional unions from operating in industries that are declared essential by the relevant Minister. The Decree also brings in a number of other restrictions on industrial action, which altogether raise concerns that the fundamental human rights to freedom of association, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of workers’ rights, could be illegitimately restricted.

While 2011 has seen continuing concerns regarding the human rights situation in Fiji, there is potential for improvements in the near future. The Attorney-General has made comments indicating that the Public Emergency Regulations should be lifted before the constitutional process begins, and consultations on the drafting of a new constitution are due to start in September 2012. In addition, the very fact that Fiji made a commitment to implement the human rights recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review is encouraging and Fiji will now need to illustrate considerable improvements before its next review in 2014 in order to have made significant progress.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has offered support to the Government to implement the recommendations, including the ratification of the remaining core human rights treaties, and the creation of a working group to progress a national consultation on the implementation of the recommendations in 2012. OHCHR look forward to supporting progress in the enjoyment of human rights in Fiji, which can only benefit all Fijians and the entire Pacific region.

*Matilda Bogner is the Regional Representative for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Office for the Pacific, based in Suva, Fiji.

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