Retiring Fiji activist puts success down to careful navigating
A long time activist for human rights and democracy in Fiji the Reverend Akuila Yabaki says careful navigation has been the key to his survival during politically turbulent times.
A long time activist for human rights and democracy in Fiji, the Reverend Akuila Yabaki, says careful navigation has been the key to his survival during politically turbulent times.
The Reverend Yabaki is stepping down from 16 years at the helm of one of the country's prominent civil society organisations the Citizens' Constitutional Forum.
He told Sally Round he has been sustained by his Christian beliefs over the years.
AKUILA YABAKI: I think the organisation has grown from a small beginning, we were only three people and now sometimes we have twenty in the office in different sections - legal research and community education, a very important part - people going out into villages and settlements, and advocacy which I feel is one of my special points. And we steered the organisation through turbulent times, the coup of 2000 and another coup of 2006, unfortunately, but all the time fearlessly advocating for justice and creating in others passion for rule of law, good governance and human rights.
SALLY ROUND: As you say you have seen two coups during your time at the helm of CCF. How difficult was it to run an NGO during those times?
AY: Well we had to negotiate. You have to negotiate, or navigate rather, different political persuasions. It's fairly standard that any government that's in power, we would not be a favourite because we would be part of the watchdog process and I think that has been the case. Also (with) my own church, the Methodist Church, which has a deficit on human rights going back to the 1987 coup. Yes, I have had to navigate my way around those institutions and at the same time remain strongly an advocate for ethnic diversity and human rights.
SR: So navigation, that's a skill you needed to have. What other special skills do you think and how did you manage to negotiate?
AY: I think be available when they call for meetings and consultations but all the time you have to base yourself on principles of transparency and accountability. I think that is being revisited with this government - firstly following the UPR (Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council), they have invited us to be forthcoming and working together but actually they are still calling the agenda. There's no equal ground actually for negotiation.
SR: And during a time of much self censorship in Fiji you never appeared afraid to be heard and say what you think even as others were pulling in their heads. How were you able to do that when others went quiet?
AY: I came into the job out of conviction. I'm a believer in the cause. Sometimes you get technocrats, legal researchers, good people around, good administrators, efficiency managers and things but you have to believe in the cause, be a strong advocate for ethnic diversity in a country that has a coup culture. You need to be a believer that these things are not right and they need to be put right.
SR: Were you ever personally threatened?
AY: Well I've been taken to court. That's kind of a threat.
SR: Did you ever feel your safety was threatened?
AY: Not really. I've engaged with ... if you want to talk about the military leaders, commissioners, the police ... I've engaged with them on a personal level. I think I have some ideas of what they're thinking. I think they too have to work under instructions. But I have been critiqued in situations where people have been taken up to the camp and (I) supported them in their cause for justice.
SR: Do you think your standing as a minister of religion has helped you, has protected you in any way?
AY: Well certainly I am a believer. The fact that I had to navigate my own position with my own church - I'm not their favourite - all these years but I haven't changed my affiliation. I think the primary concern of the Christian faith is to proclaim and to act in a way in which we express our love for one another as Christ loved us, so I think that cuts across the diversity, the divisions. Someone who lives by that should have adequate resources to persevere and I think that I've been sustained by that over the years.
SR: What is your view of how the elections went and how democracy is playing out now? We're nearly six months after the election.
AY: We've got four years in which you have to ensure that the democratic development in Fiji is such that it belongs to this country and that it respects human rights, the rule of law. It won't be given to you on a platter, you've got to mobilise, empower people to claim that for themselves.
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