8 Aug 2012

I-Taukei rights and religious freedom strong themes at Fiji constitution hearings

3:42 pm on 8 August 2012

Fiji's Constitution Commission chairman Yash Ghai says indigenous people's rights and freedom of religion are among the strongest themes surfacing so far at its hearings in Suva.

The Commission has begun collecting views as part of its work towards a new constitution which the interim government wants in place before elections in 2014.

Sally Round reports.

Professor Ghai says the Commission has been sitting for just a few days in the capital and had about 60 submissions so far with a wide range of views.

He says indigenous people's rights in relation to land and traditions is a prominent theme, as is religion.

"The principle which we are supposed to observe in making the constitution requires the state to be secular. Some people are saying it should be a Christian state. Maybe there is some misunderstanding about the concept of a secular state. Some people think this is an empty religious position. We try to explain a secular state is not necessarily anti-religion and the Bill of Rights will firmly have a strong protection of freedom of religion."

Professor Ghai says people are also concerned about government structure.

Most people want a directly elected president even though they support a parliamentary system whereas some others are saying it's time we tried another system. The one they recommend is a US type presidency.

There have also been calls for better social justice and policies for the disabled.

The Commission chairman says young people seem to be more in line with at least one of the principles already decreed by the interim government as a "must" for the new constitution.

They wanted a Fiji which had political integration; parties are not linked to a particular community but represent particular people with a particular view across a country and across a racial division.

Before the Commission began its work Professor Ghai called for a review of laws to make sure people could give their views freely.

The interim government has since lifted restrictions on meetings but controls remain on the media and security forces still have wide reaching powers.

So now the hearings are underway, does Professor Ghai feel people are coming forward freely with their views?

I think those that come to us are speaking quite openly, frankly and sometimes when I probe them, or we probe them, they seem to be, as one person said, (speaking) from their heart. But what may be happening and we don't know yet, is that people who are afraid are not coming to us at all.

Professor Ghai says he brought up that issue again with the interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama on Monday.

If there are such fears of if there is legislation which inhibits them from coming forward then the government must deal with that situation. I said it could just be that these meetings were announced recently and people are at work but I said people have been telling us that people are a bit nervous about coming out openly.

Professor Ghai says the regime leader clearly wants full participation and he has urged civil servants to prepare their submissions.

Professor Ghai has, in the meantime, called for a study of remaining laws which may be restricting debate.

The five-person commission moves out of Suva on the 20th with two more months of hearings around the country.