Fiji government must open up constitution process


Fiji government must open up constitution process if it wants to achieve truly inclusive democracy

The Fiji government’s moves to consolidate power threaten to significantly undermine the constitutional process and an inclusive, democratic future for the country, say Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF), in a new report launched today.

The report finds that there is widespread concern within Fiji that the government, having declared its intention to allow the people to have their say over the country’s future, is now backtracking, and is unwilling to relinquish power. This has impacted on the general public’s faith in the constitutional process and their willingness to engage in it, say the organisations.

‘The government is trying to address ethnic divisions in Fijian politics. This is laudable, but the message is being lost, as the general public simply focuses on the way the government has interrupted the constitutional process and stifled independent opinion,’ says Chris Chapman, MRG’s Head of Conflict Prevention.

‘In fact, our research shows that the government could arrive at the same goal by opening up the debate and trusting the people to make their own choices,’ he added.

Against the backdrop of the controversy surrounding the draft constitution and the scrapping of the Constituent Assembly, Fiji: the challenges and opportunities of diversity, provides insight into two of the most vexed issues that the constitution sets out to address: tackling discrimination and exclusion based on ethnicity, and improving intercommunity relations.

The report offers policy recommendations, based on evidence drawn from interviews across all of Fiji’s ethnic groups, and says that the government must enact comprehensive legislation to prohibit discrimination and exclusion based on ethnicity, and provide transparent, accessible and effective access to justice for all victims of discrimination.

In January 2013, Fiji’s government created a political firestorm when it rejected a draft constitution, based on over 7,000 submissions received from the public and drawn up by an independent commission, and submitted it to be re-written by the Attorney-General’s office.

The independent commission’s draft contained many provisions aimed at improving inter-ethnic relations, tackling discrimination and exclusion, and increasing government accountability and respect for human rights – notably by reducing the role of the military in government.

The government then announced on March 21st that they were scrapping plans for the Constituent Assembly that was supposed to deliberate the scheduled new constitution, which was also presented on the same day.

Some significant sections of the draft on anti-discrimination have made their way into the government’s final version, but the rewritten constitution dramatically reduces the powers of the President, and makes the Prime Minister commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The army is given a strong role in overseeing the future affairs of the nation.

‘The current draft denies a civilian and civil society role in any of the public offices or commissions, centralising power between two positions, that of the Prime Minister and the Attorney General. This will signal to the people that they want to maintain the status quo, but we still have a chance to make changes if the government will listen and treat the people as partners and not as the enemy,’ says Reverend Akuila Yabaki, Chief Executive Officer of CCF.

The report says that rapid urbanization, a growing modern economy and demographic shifts are eroding entrenched ethnic divisions. But indigenous Fijians express disquiet about what they perceive as the government’s anti-indigenous policies, such as the abolition of the Fijian Great Council of Chiefs.

The report finds that land ownership and access to natural resources also remain the cause of much inter-ethnic tension. Large numbers of Indo-Fijians, who rely on land leased by indigenous Fijians, have seen those leases expire; and indigenous Fijians fear their land will be expropriated by the government for development. The government’s draft constitution scraps an independent land commission proposed in the earlier draft, in order to tackle such issues.

Fiji has been under military rule since a 2006 coup. The country has suffered four coups since 1987, mainly as a result of tension between the majority indigenous Fijian population and an economically powerful Indian minority.

Smaller minorities, including Banabans, Rotumans, Chinese, Melanesians and other Pacific islanders are largely politically invisible, and socially and economically excluded.

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