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Amnesty report on Fiji human rights disappointing

Censorship in Fiji - curbed stories in the Fiji Times. Photo: TVNZ

Censorship in Fiji - curbed stories in the Fiji Times. Photo: TVNZ

Pacific.Scoop
Opinion – By Crosbie Walsh

The Amnesty International report on human rights abuses in Fiji is a disappointment. These abuses, and there have been several despite interim government assurances to the contrary, would have been better reported and exposed in an unemotional, objective manner, leaving readers to judge their causation, extent and seriousness.

Unfortunately, the report is anything but unemotional and objective; it is far more a lopsided polemic.

From its romantically inaccurate title of Fiji of yore (Fiji,  Paradise Lost) and near-hysterical introductory quote (“There is nothing to stop the soldiers from harming or killing us if we try to protest, march or speak out.”), and a later quote  that likens the practices of the Voreqe Bainimarama regime to the Gestapo (four dead compared with Nazi millions!), it does not read like the independent, objective and well-researched reports we have come to expect from this widely respected international organisation.

And it does not take long to learn why.

Its sole researcher, Apolosi Bose, is an ethnic Fijian with strong personal views on the 2006 military takeover and its aftermath. One must ask why AI used Bose when it normally does not use researchers from the country being researched.

Given Bose’s background, it must have been predictable he would carefully select those he interviewed, and this proved to be the case. He conducted interviews with 80 people, journalists, lawyers and others – many no doubt with personal grudges – and all hostile to the interim government.

The interviews were conducted between 4-18 April, a period that overlapped the Abrogation of the 1997 Constitution and the introduction of the Public Emergency Regulations (PER).

In other words, during a time when political tensions were at an abnormally high level.  Other than the period immediately following the coup, and that following the cancellation of the Methodist Conference, this was the most troubled period in the past six years.

For information on events since April (the report was published in September) Bose relied on people he called “activists in Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne and London.” I read “activists” to be people actively opposed to the interim government.

Why such people would know more about what was happening in Fiji than he did in London, one cannot say, unless their information came from like-minded “activists” in Fiji. Those interviewed most certainly did not represent a cross-section of opinions in Fiji.

The issues covered in the report have been previously widely reported in the Fiji and foreign mainstream media and blogs. There is nothing new.

The abuses and alleged abuses include:

–    Those against some women NGO leaders in early 2007;
–    The brutal deaths of four young people suspected of drug dealing and a threat to blow up the Monasavu Dam;
–    The President’s Abrogation of the Constitution and the introduction of PER;
–    The sidelining of the Fiji Law Society;
–    supposed interference with the judiciary; travel bans on some government critics;
–    The earlier deportation of foreign journalists and later detentions and harassment of local journalists;
–    The alleged government firebombing of opponents’ homes;
–    The cancellation of the Methodist Church conference, and
–    The subsequent court cases against Adi Teimumu and the ministers for breaking the PER.

There is no question that these real and alleged abuses should be reported (even though some, such as the Abrogation and the sidelining of the Fiji Law Society, are questionably abuses, and only conjecture links government to the firebombing).

But they should have been reported in context, and contrary viewpoints should have been sought and reported.  More than one informed commentator, this writer included, has pointed, for example, to ongoing bias in media reporting, and the racist ethno-nationalism of the three leading Methodist ministers and the Fijian chief.

At least one of the ministers supported the 2000 Speight coup, and the chief was a minister in the deposed Laisenia Qarase government.  If church ministers and chiefs choose to step outside their traditional roles and make inflammatory, destablising, political comments in a delicately poised political situation – and if they do so in breach of public emergency regulations – their arrest at worst is a provoked human rights abuse.

Finally, the report needs to be seen in perspective.  Even if we uncritically accept all the reported abuses, they were few in number, spread over a six year period,  targeted at a narrow section of the public, most were relatively mild in severity, and some were no worse than might have been expected before the coup.

Indeed, one wonders whether the many instances of biased news coverage; of racism and religious intolerance; of the endemic abuse of office; of the forced exodus of Indo-Fijians from the land and emigration from Fiji; and the distorted electoral system, evident under the previous regime were also abuses of human rights, and if so why those who protest now did not protest then.

This is not a population living in fear. Fiji is not another Burma, and attempts to make it seem so are themselves an abuse of the public’s “right” to expect responsible reporting, most especially from bodies such as Amnesty International.

There have been human rights abuses in Fiji, and not all of them have been properly addressed by the government. There have also been abuses of office by opponents of the government.

While this might be seen as normal in a post-coup situation, all abuses and abuse-related happenings need to be seen in perspective; placed in context, weighed and balanced; compared with earlier (pre-coup) abuses; and considered within a future context: Where is Fiji now, and how may we help it to move towards a better future?

The Amnesty International investigation does none of these things. It is a report by – and about – “activists” aimed at an international audience, and it will be used by them to further isolate Fiji to no useful purpose.

Dr Crosbie Walsh is a retired professor and director of development studies at the University of the South Pacific. Other articles and links on his Fiji blog.

Fiji, Paradise Lost: A Tale of Ongoing Human Rights Violations April-July 2009
Global concerns over Fiji human rights abuses