Postdate: 24/ 03/ 2003
The Coalition of Human Rights and Government recently presented its submissions to the International Committee on the Elimination of Ali Forms of Discrimination in Geneva where it tried to address the various issues facing the country. The NGO report, which was highly critical of the Government’s lack of action, has come under fire by Prime Minster Laisenia Qarase. Bernadette Hussain spoke to coalition chairman Reverend Akuila Yabaki about their presentation, the State presentation and the general reaction.
TIMES: Would you say your presentation/submission was successful or well received?
YABAKI: I’ll just speak briefly on ICERD before answering that, especially the way ICERD organises itself. CERD was the one Fiji ratified but had not reported on it since 1984. I think it is a credit to Foreign Affairs Minister Kaliopate Tavola for giving a pledge to the ICERD about three years ago, that it would honour and update its reporting, but that was delayed until last year. Even then, they were not ready and did not do it very well. It’s to the credit of the State that it has done a lot more work and presented a report on March 11. Our submission was received outside the State report but there was more interest which raised a lot more questions about the situation in Fiji. This was evident in the number of questions put to the, State. There was quiet a sustained questioning session which lasted three hours on the first day and continued into the second day. Our submission was a reply to the State report we focused on points which arose at end of the 2002 report. This included the multi?party cabinet, the deregistration of NG0s, the land issue and the polarised race relations which are interlinked with the political issue or the multi?party cabinet which will lead to power sharing, which is the very core of Fiji’s political reality. To say the issue of multiparty cabinet is sub?judice is just an excuse. We were making a presentation and we said then that it was a clear sign of racial discrimination on which contravened Article One of CERD. What we said was that it defied the objectives of the Constitution to establish a multi?party and multiethnic government where all communities are represented. So the presentation was successful because it targeted articles of CERD and not just based on rhetoric or broad statements. We went from Article One to the various articles and commented on how they had been breached
TIMES: What were some of the questions asked by the committee?
YABAKI: Questions on affirmative action, the deregistration of CCF as a NGO ? about five people asked questions on this, which means they were not satisfied with the answers given to them by the Government since the CCF was deregistered at the time it was involved in taking the interim administration to court for its breach of the 1997 Constitution. Other questions were on land policies. They wanted to know why, when there was so much land available and owned by the indigenous people, wasn’t anything provided for evicted farmers? For an outsider, it is clearly unfair. And to say that the Government had no say in it is neither here nor there because it has to take a lead. If Government is not inducing a situation where land is made available, then it’s giving out the wrong signal so people will believe that there is no land when there really is land available. When you look at the figures and see that only a third of the expired leases have been renewed it raises the question whether the Government is serious about resolving it because it clearly manifests a racial overtone. Of course Isireli Mataito’s response was that all land was Fijians and were under the administration of the Native Land Trust Board. That’s all right, but the committee wanted to know why has there been no serious attempt by the Government to acquire land for the people who had been evicted and could not get land even though they were willing to use the land. Other members wanted to know why land was owned exclusively by Fijians. Now, here is the colonial legacy of reservation and these are normally a departure from what is expected. But while reservations are allowed, they should not be entrenched as an instrument of racial discrimination, which seems to be the case here. It should be allowed to evolve and be able to change with time. But the sad thing is that after the 1987 coup we had come up with the racially based 1990 Constitution and the point to note here is that this was clearly absent in the State report. It did not talk about the 1990 Constitution and the problems associated with it. The report jumped straight into the 2000 event. Much of the analysis started with the 2000 event. Reference was made to 1987, but just briefly. The decade which followed the 1990 Constitution was left out. The report was to cover the period from 1985 to 2003. So there were gaps there which have to be analysed.
TIMES: Despite the various questions and criticisms, how do you view the fact that Government took the initiative the make the presentation?
YABAKI: It augurs well for Government to make this sort of commitment. I think this government has two faces to it. One is represented by liberal minded people ? those with a sense of international requirement which need?to be fulfilled in order for this government to be credible while the other seems to say that their chief minded mandates is from the communist narrow?minded nationalists. Now, this side of the Qarase Government is misinterpreting and engaging in misinformation without getting the facts of what happened in Geneva. And Qarase himself, sadly, has been mouthing those kind of comments. For example, reaction to the question of the deregistration of the CCF as a way of preventing a citizen?based organisation for taking a case ?to court aimed at restoring constitutional democracy. Now, Fiji did report and the committee did commend the Government, but that is just the start ? to consulted NG0s and providing comprehensive reports. But the fact that more questions were asked indicates that there is a thirst for a clearer picture of what is happening in Fiji. Now let me say that it is a procedure of CERD that a government can invite a, CERD committee to see things for themselves and that could well be the way forward. They could look at the land situation first hand because it is a complex issue for outsiders to understand. Of course the Fiji Government does not have to pay for the trip ?the UN will fund it.
TIMES: Do you think the Government should consider this?
YABAKI: I think they should. I would strongly recommend that it is the way forward because there is so much to report from 1985 and there have been gaps in reporting. So it is important that they come and see for themselves. It would mean that NG0s would like to see the Government be accountable able and transparent.
TIMES: Going back to the State report, do you feel that it painted a fair picture of the situation here?
YABAKI: It’s not so much a fair picture but a picture of what Government is trying to do and there is a difference in that, because it’s all based on arguments to justify the line of action. It was largely a way of justifying the measures which have been in place but unfortunately since 2000, Fiji has been backtracking. She is not moving forward to undo some of these reservations arid be more flexible when dealing with human questions which have arisen since the coup. In fact, the political agenda of the Qarase government means it has backtracked instead of dealing with racial issues and the same time breaching, the different articles. I think, for those who want to undo racial discrimination, it is sad because it is a, long struggle. The participation of NG0s in the production of the report is vital to the restoration of Government’s credibility and it may not be possible under the present government.
TIMES: Why do you say that?
YABAKI: Because much of the report was a justifying the committee, in diplomatic language, did point out that it was in adequate. NG0s were part of a consultation on February 7 our it was a one?off thing where the agenda was heavily set and controlled by the Government. We could not raise much questions or clarifications and we had more time for lunch than discussions. They found it necessary to include NGO perspectives because they represent human rights issues.