(Geneva) - UN members should press Fiji's military government during a review of its human rights record to end arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment in detention, and interference with judicial independence, and to ensure a swift return to democratic rule, Human Rights Watch said today. Fiji will undergo its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a review of each member country's human rights record held every four years, before the Human Rights Council in Geneva, on February 11, 2010.
Human Rights Watch, in a submission to the Council as part of the review process, called for corrective action to deal with Fiji's abusive emergency regulations, impunity of security forces for human rights abuses, and censorship in the country's newsrooms since Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a December 5, 2006 coup.
"A harsh crackdown on the media and perceived government critics has vaulted Fiji to among the top human rights abusers in the Pacific," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The military government's attempts to justify its seizure of political power as necessary for good governance and racial harmony ring hollow when it continues to abuse the rights of its people."
Fiji's military and police arbitrarily arrest and detain human rights defenders, journalists, and others perceived as critical of the military government. Since the coup, four people have died in military or police custody and dozens have been intimidated, beaten, sexually assaulted, or subjected to cruel and degrading treatment. Security personnel implicated in three of the custodial deaths remain free.
Human rights abusers in the army and police feel they will be protected from prosecution or any other punishment, Human Rights Watch said. Because Fiji contributes many troops to global UN peacekeeping efforts, both the UN and member countries should be concerned about the deployment of abusive Fijian troops to UN operations.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the human rights situation in Fiji is likely to deteriorate further. Fiji's land force commander, Brigadier General Pita Driti, warned government critics in a January 5 interview with the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation that "I would like to tell [our adversaries] to keep low and try to cooperate with us...otherwise they will be in for something really hard in terms of how we will treat them this year."
The wide-ranging powers and immunity provided in the Public Emergency Regulations adopted on April 10, 2009, contribute to a climate of impunity for members of the security forces, Human Rights Watch said. These regulations, which are extended every 30 days, empower security forces to prohibit processions and meetings; to use lethal force as they deem necessary; to enter and remain in any building where there is reason to believe three or more people are meeting; and to regulate the use of any public place.
Government officers physically took over newsrooms in April 2009 and remain in control, censoring broadcasts and print publications. Access to blogs critical of the military government has been blocked in recent months.
"Fiji should make a real step towards improving human rights by simply not renewing the Public Emergency Regulations when they expire this month," Robertson said. "Countries at the Human Rights Council should press Fiji for a commitment to cancel these abusive regulations."
The military government also removed all judicial officers from office on April 10, 2009, striking a crippling blow to the independence of Fiji's judiciary, Human Rights Watch said. In addition to reconstituting courts and commissions, the government has improperly intervened in the licensing of lawyers and issued orders to prohibit legal challenges of its actions.
The dire state of the country's judiciary continues to worsen. In December, the military government summarily dismissed three magistrates without due process, even though it was the military government that had originally appointed them.
"The military government continues to chip away at any remaining shred of judicial independence by firing judges at will," Robertson said. "UN member countries should ask Fiji what it fears from an independent judiciary and a vibrant civil society."
Human Rights Watch also highlighted the need for continued UN engagement in Fiji, especially given the worsening rights situation. Countries should urge the Fiji government to work with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to enhance protection for human rights.
"Without an impartial judiciary and other independent institutions to provide checks and balances on the military government, an active role by the UN human rights office is crucial," Robertson said. "Fiji's worsening rights record should come under careful scrutiny. The UN and its member states need to insist that Fiji abide by its international human rights commitments."