Statement at the High Level Segment of the 28th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council
My Fellow Heads of Government;
Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is an honour for me, as the Prime Minister of Fiji, to take part in this High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council – the first since we established our Mission here in Geneva last June.
The privilege is all the greater because my address coincides with a period of momentous change in our nation and a fundamental improvement in the human rights of all Fijians.
Mr President, I stand before you as the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Fiji, having led my FijiFirst Party to a decisive victory in the first genuinely democratic election in Fijian history last September.
That election took place on the basis of a new Constitution that for the first time, creates a secular State, establishes a common and equal citizenry, reaffirms civil and political rights and also guarantees the Fijian people an unprecedented array of social and economic rights. This includes the right to education, the right to adequate health care, adequate food and water, housing, sanitation, economic participation, a just minimum wage, social security and specific rights for people with disabilities and children.
Never before have the Fijian people enjoyed such a high level of protection as they now have in the Bill of Rights that is the centerpiece of our Constitution. These rights are enforceable through an independent judiciary and by a Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission established in accordance with the Paris Principles.
The rights of the Fijian people are now entrenched in a way that never occurred under any of the three previous constitutions that governed our country since we gained independence from Britain 45 years ago.
Mr President, allow me to outline some core events in Fiji’s history that have brought us to this point – the birth of our new democracy in which, for the first time, every citizen enjoys substantive justice and opportunity.
In stark contrast to other countries such as Australia and USA for example – the colonial experience in Fiji was not one of large scale dispossession of land and rights and marginalization of the indigenous people.
Today, approximately 91 per cent of all land in Fiji is owned through customary ownership by the indigenous people and cannot be permanently alienated under any circumstances. This has given the indigenous people a level of security that has been noticeably absent in other countries and has been central to their social and economic wellbeing.
So, Mr President, indigenous ownership of land, as well as the recognition of their unique culture, traditions and language are protected under our Constitution and are under no threat whatsoever.
Accordingly, the rationale behind the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People does not readily apply to Fiji in the way that it does to those nations whose indigenous citizens have been and continue to be exploited, marginalized and dispossessed. This is simply not the case in Fiji, which makes the Fijian indigenous experience rare if not unique.
In our colonial past, Fiji was divided firmly along racial lines. Based on ethnicity, children were educated at separate schools and governments were chosen under an electoral system that was racially weighted in favour of indigenous Fijians.
So this was the legacy we were left with by our coloniser at Independence. And unfortunately, even after Independence, certain elites exploited these divisions for their own purposes. And this produced decades of instability, including three coups led by ethno-nationalists – two in 1987 and one in 2000 – that tore our nation apart.
Tens of thousands of our citizens lost faith in Fiji and fled. We lost some of our best and brightest people. And our overall national development was retarded as we remained locked in a mindset of prejudice and distrust.
In 2006 – as Commander of the Military – I assumed control of Fiji and removed an ethno-nationalist government that had embarked on a campaign to marginalize our minorities and our underprivileged even further. Unlike previous takeovers, ours was to assert the principle of equality in our nation once and for all. And to assert the human rights of every citizen, irrespective of ethnicity, religious affiliation, personal circumstance including socio-economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity.
We drew a line under the past. We reset the national compass. We declared Year Zero to finally begin building a modern nation state in which the universal principles of true democracy and human rights are enshrined, in law and practiced in our national life.
After eight years of comprehensive political, legal, and economic reforms, we returned Fiji to parliamentary rule last September in an election whose credibility was endorsed by an observer force made up of a multitude of nations, and co-led by India, Indonesia and Australia.
This peaceful and orderly transition has been a national triumph and one of great credit to the Fijian people. We can now put the past behind us. We can now finally fulfill our promise as a nation. And we can guarantee the human rights of every Fijian, no matter who they are or where they come from.
Mr President, my Government believes that human rights should not merely be restricted to civil and political rights. They must include the concomitant implementation of socio-economic rights. The reality is that rights do not exist in a vacuum, nor should they. They must be part of our development as individuals and as a nation. Our intrinsic sense and existence of human dignity must be realized and given every opportunity. It is within this context for example, we see access to education as an important human right.
For the first time, Fiji is providing our young people with free primary and secondary schooling, along with scholarships and student loans for any Fijian who gains a place at tertiary level. At the same time, we are developing a network of Government Telecentres across Fiji to give our people access to the Internet and other benefits of the Digital Age.
I wish, at this meeting, to publicly invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education to visit Fiji and report on the progress we are making. And I am extending the same invitation to the United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Water. Because we have also made access to clean water a priority and are providing free water to Fijian households at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.
Mr President, Fiji as a developing nation, has never stood taller or prouder in the world, nor is it more deserving of the support of the international community.
Because, Mr President, Fiji has delivered the biggest human right of all – the right to equality, human dignity and justice for every citizen.
In a world riven by inequality, injustice and division, Fiji can hold its head high for what we have accomplished in such a short period of time, especially after decades of injustice and dysfunction. And it is against this background that I ask the global community to consider the merits of what we have achieved.
The highest standards of justice, fairness, transparency and accountability are now enshrined in our supreme law and are the principles to which we all aspire in our national life. And we are continuing the reform process to strengthen our new democracy and improve our human rights record even further.
The Fijian Constitution already says that every person has the right to freedom from torture of any kind, whether physical, mental or emotional, and from cruel, inhumane, degrading or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment. We will soon formally ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture or UNCAT. It is currently with the relevant parliamentary committee for scrutiny.
In the hearings before our Parliament, the Fiji Military Forces and the Fiji Police have both publically committed themselves to the implementation of UNCAT.
Mr President, I’m also proud to report that our Parliament passed a bill last month to remove the death penalty from our laws governing the military. So now, the death penalty has been completely removed from all our laws giving credence to section 8 of our Constitution which is the right to life.
Mr President, while this Council is rightfully charged with upholding the human rights records of individual countries, I urge you all to give equal consideration to those trans-national issues for which the global community does not yet have solutions, but to which we must give far greater attention.
By far the biggest of these – for a Small Island Developing Country such as Fiji – is the collective failure of the global community to address the negative consequences of climate change. The repeated failure of the industrialised nations to curb their carbon emissions is a direct threat to the human rights of people living in vulnerable small island States like Fiji, including the right to life. The very existence of some of our neighbours is threatened.
Fiji is pleased to see that this issue has been given prominence by the Human Rights Council, with a whole day dedicated to the issue later in the week. I urge you all to take concrete steps to place the human rights impact of climate change at the centre of your deliberations. Because time is running out and the world needs to act urgently and decisively.
Fiji – along with other of its Pacific neighbours – is also urging the Council to consider the human rights position of refugees seeking asylum in our larger neighbours, but who have been rebuffed and resettled among Pacific peoples.
The impact of the policy of operating refugee camps in Small Pacific Island Countries on local people – as well as the refugees themselves – deserves the closest scrutiny if the United Nations conventions have any relevance or significance at all.
If human rights are universal, no country should be able to contract out an obligation to respect them, especially when dealing with the displaced, the vulnerable and children. And Fiji’s position is that the international community can no longer continue to turn a blind eye to what we consider to be one of the greatest human rights challenges in the Pacific.
Mr President, the rapidly evolving regional and global environment has also made our region more vulnerable to other human rights concerns, including human trafficking, smuggling and debt bondage.
In fact, this category of illegal activity is quickly becoming one of the biggest threats to human rights in the Pacific. And it demands a decisive and unified response from our region and from the wider international community.
For our part, in Fiji, we have strengthened surveillance and introduced new and tougher laws. And we are also committed to working closely with our neighbours, development partners and global agencies.
This is a challenge that we simply cannot ignore and Fiji is determined to do everything we can to boost the international capacity to fight this threat.
Mr President, we are bringing the same determination to improve our own human rights record across the board. And to affirm human dignity, fairness, justice and the rule of law as our core values as a nation.
Thank you for the opportunity to address this Council and I wish you all the very best in your deliberations.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.