Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama speaks during the 64th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 26, 2009.

(Geneva) – UN member states should press the government of Fiji during its UN human rights review to end ill-treatment in detention, cease harassment and arbitrary arrest of its citizens, and stop interfering with judicial independence, Human Rights Watch said today. Fiji will undergo its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR), an assessment of each member country’s rights record held every four years, before the Human Rights Council in Geneva on October 29, 2014.

Fiji’s September 17 elections, the first in nearly eight years, resulted in the election of the Fiji First party, headed by former coup leader and military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama. Human Rights Watch, in a submission to the council, called on the government of Fiji to guarantee protection of human rights defenders, respect freedom of expression, order investigations into allegations of security forces abuses, and commit to reforming the judiciary.

“The UPR review in Geneva is a unique occasion to test whether the new Fiji government can seriously address its human rights problems,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “But it is worrisome Prime Minister Bainimarama’s government apparently lacks any policy to either ensure accountability for past rights abuses or to take on real rights reforms.”

Fiji’s current constitution grants “absolute and unconditional immunity” to all members of public services and security forces, as well as public office holders, for actions taken during the 2006 coup d’état until the new parliament started officially functioning. During its 2009 UPR review, Fiji accepted recommendations to take active measures to investigate and prosecute those responsible for acts of torture and ill-treatment, and put an end to immunity for members of the military and police force. There is little evidence to suggest that Fiji has implemented these recommendations.

For example, the Fiji government took no action when a video surfaced in March 2013 depicting what appears to be Fijian soldiers torturing and beating two men. When asked whether there would be an investigation, then-Commodore Bainimarama responded that he would stick by his men and officials implicated in the incident.

“Failure to investigate torture by Fijian soldiers that was caught on film raises red flags about a culture of impunity for security forces in Fiji,” Robertson said. “UN member states should push the new government to order an independent investigation into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment.”  

Human Rights Watch urged member states to make concrete, time-bound recommendations to the government of Fiji to respect basic civil and political rights. The Human Rights Watch submission noted that the government of Fiji has imposed severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association. During the first review, Fiji promised to “abolish any policy or decree that restricts the freedom of the media or the rights of freedom of association and movement.” Yet the 2010 Media Decree remains in place, a law that prohibits any publication that is perceived to go “against public interest or order.”

Human Rights Watch noted that despite lifting the highly restrictive Public Emergency Regulations bill in January 2012, Fiji military and police continued to arrest and detain those perceived as critical of the administration, particularly during public protests.

Human Rights Watch pointed out the previous government of Fiji had failed to uphold the rule of law and continually encroached on the independence of the judiciary. The courts have used broadly defined contempt provisions to limit freedom of expression and silence the media. A petition filed by William Marshall, a former Fiji Appeal Court judge, claimed interference with the justice system by Attorney General Sayed-Khaiyum. Fiji’s four major opposition parties have requested further investigation into Marshall’s petition.

Respect for workers’ rights continued to deteriorate since Fiji’s last UPR review. In September 2012, then-Commodore Bainimarama expelled an International Labour Organisation (ILO) delegation from Fiji that was trying to investigate serious violations of worker’s rights. Only in June 2014, when the ILO threatened to establish a commission of inquiry on Fiji if the ILO direct contacts mission was not admitted to the country before November did Fiji relent. An ILO mission visited the country in early October 2014.

Human Rights Watch also called on UN member states to encourage the government of Fiji to issue an open invitation to all Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, and swiftly facilitate the visits of Special Procedures who have requested access.

“The UPR review is an important opportunity for Prime Minister Bainimarama and his government to prove they are serious about moving towards real democratic reform,” Robertson said. “Authorities in Fiji should understand that without the realization of fundamental rights, there will be no truly democratic transition in the country.”