29 Aug 2013

High chiefs' lawyer claims Fiji indigenous rights breached by constitution

4:58 pm on 29 August 2013

A representative of Fiji's High Chiefs says the country's new constitution is the last straw in a long list of manifest breaches of indigenous rights which will again be brought up at the United Nations.

The high chiefs' lawyer, Niko Nawaikula, told Sally Round they are unhappy the rights to customary land and limited self autonomy have not been entrenched as in Fiji's previous constitutions.

NIKO NAWAIKULA: Both of these rights were part of the treaty between the Fijian chiefs and the first colonial ruler, Great Britain. And in every constitution from that time those two rights have been entrenched. It has been recognised internationally under the ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights. They had expected it would continue to be entrenched within the constitution as it has been. So no doubt they're very unhappy, they're very surprised and disappointed. But understand that when the new military regime got into power it had expressly stated that one of its aims was to remove customary institutions. It said that those were the source of discrimination, but it was warned and cautioned at the Human Rights Committee. When I went in 2012, they cautioned the Fiji representative that it's wrong for you to disregard or to deny indigenous rights. They advised the government that what it should do is to recognise the rights of indigenous Fijians, recognise the rights of individuals, recognise the group rights of others and to make sure none tramples over the other.

SALLY ROUND: And what particular provisions do you see in the constitution, or lack of provision, that tramples on indigenous rights?

NN: Well, there's no recognition at all of the group rights. That has been totally removed. The exception is after the 2013 draft constitution there has been an upheaval. I heard military personnel complain that is wrong. There's a small constitution there where it says the property rights of native Fijians will be protected. But that's fundamental rights. That's nothing new.That's just a small concession to give lip service to that. But what we are talking about here is the group rights, the rights of identity - those have been totally removed.

SR: And the fact that there only will be constituency, one electorate, no regional representatives is that a concern for indigenous Fijians?

NN: That is a concern, because indigenous Fijians, they have three tribal confederacies. And from the independance until now that has been recognised within the format of the elections, where the boundaries are laid according to the tribal confederacies or part of it accordingly. That has been totally removed. So in terms of accountability and responsibility that takes it away totally.

SR: Is that against those UN conventions that you were talking about earlier?

NN: Well, the UN conventions - for example, the ILO 169 - they're very specific. It says that before you change any policy in relation to native people, before you make any law change that impacts on their lives, you must obtain their consent, you must consult with them, you must obtain their views. What has happened in Fiji is that there are so many changes in the laws. For example, the Great Council of Chiefs has been terminated. That has been done without getting their prior consent, without consulting them, and totally against one of the basic treaties - ILO Convention 169 - which Fiji has ratified.

That was the lawyer for Fiji's high chiefs, Niko Nawaikula. He says he's now working on a report for a UN supervisory body on indigenous rights next month.