16 Mar 2012

Abolition of Fiji chiefs' council UN contravention says solicitor

6:30 pm on 16 March 2012

A Fiji solicitor who has addressed the United Nations on the erosion of indigenous rights in his country says the abolition of the Great Council of Chiefs is a contravention of UN law.

The interim prime minister's announcement of the council's disestablishment follows changes in 2008 to the regulations governing it, which was preceded by its suspension after the 2006 military coup.

Nikolau Nawaikula says under UN indigenous rights law, amending legislation to get rid of the council requires the consent of Fiji's indigenous people.

Annell Husband has this report.


"I just want to let you know that His Excellency the President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau has approved decrees that formally disestablish the Great Council of Chiefs, an institution created by the British during colonialism and one that in modern times has become politicised to the detriment of Fiji's pursuit of a common and equal citizenry. in other words I can say it has become irrelevant."

Fiji's interim Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, addressing a press conference in Suva.

He went on to say that Fiji's taukei or indigenous heritage is a distinct and fundamental aspect of Fiji.

However as an institution the Great Council of Chiefs perpetuated and fed into the divisive politics which plagued our country.

The decision to abolish the council came as a surprise to many outside of Commodore Bainimarama's inner circle.

The paramount chief of Cakaudrove province and the Tovata confederacy, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, says it's sad that such an august institution has met its demise in such a way.

He concedes that while it may need modernising, it still has a place in today's Fiji and he and his chiefly colleagues will be pushing for its reinstatement.

We're hoping that good sense could prevail for us to sit and talk this over and reestablish the GCC and make it a new GCC. (Why do you think Commodore Bainimarama has got rid of the GCC?) I feel that maybe, maybe, his decision is based on personal issues. And if that is the case, why penalise the rest of us?

Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu says Commodore Bainimarama's decision to strike a brush through the council, along with his assumption this week of responsibility for appointing the chairs of provincial councils, reflects a top-down approach that won't wash with with the people.

The leader of the 1987 coup, Sitiveni Rabuka, says the council has been a mainstay during times of instability and the decision to do away with it will have to be justified when Fiji again has a parliament.

All the decrees we made and I made between 1987 and the beginning of 1992 were subject to review by parliament. So everything that has happened now in the interim period of Bainimarama's rule will have to be subject to the will of the people that is parliament.

The paramount chief of Rewa province, Ro Teimumu Kepa, thinks there'll be an acceleration of similar decisions, right down to village level, in the formulation of a new constitution.

This is a case I believe that UN body should be looking into. It's all part of the same thing that will determine their long life in their autocratic ways of dealing with people in Fiji.

Ro Teimumu Kepa says the Great Council of Chiefs has stood Fiji in good stead, not only looking after itaukei but all Fiji's people.

But the solicitor Nikolau Nawaikula says the interim government's decision to drop it is a contravention of itaukei rights.

Because they have not, they are required under the UN to obtain the consent of the indigenous people. Now you can already see the motives behind that. Because when you bring in a new constitution you want to have the consensus of the population. This government will not have the consensus of the population unless it has in place people who are sympathetic to it.

Nikolau Nawaikula says as their rights are whittled away, itaukei are too scared to protest.

Because they don't want to get hurt. They have employment. Most of them are employed by the government. Most of them are related to the military people. They don't want to raise their head for fear of repercussions and that's happened.

Nikolau Nawaikula says itaukei are waiting for elections when they believe they'll be able to speak out - but he'll be taking the issue to the UN later this year.