Last Updated: Monday, 22 September 2014, 21:11 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Fiji

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Fiji, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa4434.html [accessed 23 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
 

 

Fiji's system of parliamentary democracy was interrupted in 1987 by the installation of a military-led regime following two bloodless coups. Fiji returned to elected government in 1992. That government fell in November 1993 over failure to pass a budget for 1994. The subsequent general election in February 1994 returned substantially the same government to office.

Ethnicity plays a major role in Fiji's politics, economy, and society. Fiji's more than 770,000 people constitute a multiracial society about evenly divided between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians. Indo-Fijians dominate the economy and professions and are well represented in the lower and middle levels of the public service, while ethnic Fijians control the political structures and land rights and make up the bulk of the nation's military forces.

The small but professional Fiji Military Forces (FMF) and a separate police force report to and are under the control of the Minister for Home Affairs and, ultimately, the President. In 1990, the Government also established the Fiji Intelligence Service, with limited powers to search people and property, tap telephones, and open mail. There continue to be reports of human rights abuses by the police.

Sugar and tourism constitute the mainstays of the economy, accounting for almost half of the nation's foreign exchange earnings. The Government is promoting light manufacturing for export, notably in the garment industry, to diversify the economy and lessen its dependence on sugar and tourism.

The principal human rights problem in 1994 remained constitutionally imposed and ethnically based political discrimination. Improvements in labor rights following the 1993 revision of certain restrictive 1991 labor decrees continued. Other human rights abuses include police brutality, inhibitions on freedom of the press, continued delays in bringing criminal and civil cases to trial, and violence and discrimination against women.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings by the Government or any political group.

There was one accusation of a death in official custody from unnatural causes. A man was killed, apparently while being arrested. Police claimed the victim brandished a knife. Other witnesses said he was drunk but unarmed and that the police used excessive force. The three officers involved were charged, suspended from the police, and at year's end were awaiting trial.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Police sometimes physically abuse detainees; the authorities have punished the offending officers in some instances, but punishments have been light and thus have not served as an effective deterrent to others. The police department's internal affairs unit investigates complaints of police brutality and has begun to work with the Ombudsman's office to ensure impartial observers in the investigation of complaints about police conduct.

The law permits corporal punishment as a penalty for criminal acts; strokes of the cane are administered under medical supervision, but this provision is rarely invoked.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Law of Arrest and Detention provides that a person may be arrested only if police believe that a breach of the criminal law has been or is about to be committed. Arrested persons must be brought before a court without "undue delay." This is taken to mean within 24 hours, with 48 hours as the exception (such as when an arrest is made over the weekend). Rules governing detention are designed to ensure fair questioning of suspects. Defendants have the right to a judicial review of the grounds for arrest; in urgent cases defendants may apply to a judge at any time, whether he is sitting or not. Incommunicado and arbitrary detention, both illegal, did not occur in 1994.

Exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial structure was reorganized under the 1990 Constitution. The principal courts are the magistrate courts, high court, and the Court of Appeal. The Constitution also provided for a Supreme Court as the court of final appeal, but to date it has not been established. The Court of Appeal is slowly reducing the enormous backlog of cases caused by the Government's failure to appoint a president for the court until December 1991 and the court's consequent inability to convene before that time.

There are no special courts; military courts try only members of the armed forces. Magistrate courts continue to try the large majority of cases. In addition to its jurisdiction in serious civil and criminal cases, the high court is granted special interest jurisdiction on behalf of the public and is empowered to review alleged violations of individual rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

The judiciary is independent under the Constitution and in practice. There were no credible reports in 1994 that a court was influenced by the executive.

The right to public trial is guaranteed and defendants have the right to counsel. Trials in the high court provide for the presence of assessors (citizens randomly selected to represent the community); cases in the magistrate court do not. In litigation involving lesser complaints, a public legal advisor assists indigent persons in domestic or family law cases. The right of appeal exists but is hampered by continuing delays in the appeals process. Bail procedures mean that most defendants do not experience any pretrial detention.

The law sometimes treats women differently from men. In some instances there is a presumption of reduced competence and thus reduced responsibility. For example, only women can be charged with infanticide (if a man kills an infant it is treated as murder). A woman in an infanticide case is presumed to have diminished mental capacity, and sentences are reduced accordingly. There are no political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

In general, privacy of the home is respected. However, the Intelligence Service has powers to search people and property, open mail, and tap telephones when a warrant is issued by the National Security Council, within specific operational guidelines outlined in the government decree which created it. The Intelligence Service does conduct surveillance of persons it believes represent a security threat. Some political dissidents believe their telephones and mail are monitored, but they have not provided substantiating evidence.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of speech is generally respected. Political figures and private citizens can and do speak out against the Government. Although the Public Order Act and other acts prohibit actions that are likely to incite racial antagonism, no arrests for making public statements were reported or believed to have occurred in 1994.

The Government has broad discretionary powers to impose restrictions on press freedom, and has used them in the past. The possibility of their use also serves to encourage media self-censorship. Concerned over the publication of material embarrassing to government figures, the Government renewed discussion of regulating the media.

The Government effectively pressured one weekly newspaper publisher to suppress publication of information about the private life of a senior government official. The Government also expressed its extreme displeasure over what it considered a lack of media accountability for its errors and a lack of recourse for those who felt they had been wronged in some way. Inferring a threat of an imposed media watchdog body, late in the year senior media representatives created the Fiji News Council, although with less than universal participation by media outlets and with considerable opposition from working journalists.

Legislation pertaining to the press is contained in the Newspaper Registration Act (NRA) and the Press Correction Act (PCA). Under the NRA, all newspapers must be registered with the Government before they can begin publishing. The PCA gives the Minister of Information sole discretionary power to order a newspaper to publish a "correcting statement" if, in his opinion, a false or distorted article has been published. Should the newspaper refuse to publish the Minister's correction, it can be taken to court and, if found guilty, fined approximately $700 (individual persons convicted under the Act may be fined approximately $150 and/or imprisoned for 6 months). The PCA allows the Government to arrest anyone who publishes "malicious" material. This includes anything the Government considers false news which could create or foster public alarm or result in "detriment to the public."The media operate without prior censorship but with considerable self-censorship. Newspapers occasionally print editorials critical of the Government, but rarely do investigative reporting. They widely report statements about the political situation by opposition figures and foreign governments. The letters columns of the two daily newspapers also frequently carry political statements from a wide cross section of Fiji society, including members of the deposed precoup government, which are highly critical of the Government, its programs and the Constitution. Criticism--albeit muted--of the once sacrosanct traditional chiefly system is beginning to appear. However, the Government still views comments about individual chiefs with disfavor.

An active local organization, the Fiji Islands Media Association (FIMA), is an affiliate of the regional Pacific Islands News Association (PINA). Both FIMA and PINA are pressing for better training and the establishment of codes of ethics for journalists. The Government provided space for housing the Fiji Journalism Training Institute.

The advent of television has raised the specter of censorship, openly advocated by the head of the powerful Methodist Church in Fiji and others. Fiji's "temporary" television service phased into a "permanent" service in July. News production is still in the hands of the Government's video unit and can be characterized as a digest of government activities, actions, and viewpoints.

While academic freedom is respected, the Government has effectively deterred university employees from participation in domestic politics. Since 1991 staff members of the Fiji-based University of the South Pacific must take leave if they run for public office and must resign from their posts if elected. Senior staff may not hold office in political parties.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides the right to assemble for political purposes, subject to restriction in the interest of public order. District officers must issue permits for public gatherings. The Government does not always grant permits for large outdoor political meetings or demonstrations, particularly if the police advise of difficulties with the anticipated crowd size or their ability to assure public safety.

There was no government interference with political activities during the February general election. Permits were routinely issued for rallies organized by political parties, religious groups, and groups opposed to the Government. All opposition party headquarters remain open. Political organizations are allowed to operate and issue public statements. They did so repeatedly and openly throughout the year.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitutional provision for freedom of religion is honored in practice. The Government does not restrict foreign clergy and missionary activity or other typical activities of religious organizations.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government does not restrict freedom of movement within the country or abroad. Occasional detentions at the airport occur, but the courts do not hesitate to order redress where this is warranted. Fiji citizens are free to emigrate, and the Government does not restrict their return if they choose to do so. There are no refugees in Fiji and no forced resettlement programs.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The constitutional provisions ensuring political dominance by ethnic Fijians, primarily through race-based voting rolls and representation in Parliament, abridge the right of citizens to change their government. Moreover, the Constitution was promulgated by a nonelected interim government and has not been approved by a national referendum. At year's end it was under review by a parliamentary select committee.

The Constitution guarantees ethnic Fijian dominance of the Government by providing them with 37 of 70 seats in the elected lower house of Parliament. Indo-Fijians are accorded 27 seats, Rotumans (culturally distinct Polynesians) 1, and all others 5. In the Senate (an appointed body with essentially review powers and the right to veto legislation), ethnic Fijians hold 24 of the 34 seats, Rotumans 1, and the other groups 9. Other constitutional features designed to ensure ethnic Fijian dominance include a requirement that the Prime Minister be an ethnic Fijian and selection procedures which virtually ensure that the President will also be an ethnic Fijian.

The Constitution also incorporates a bill of rights, providing for freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and other universally accepted rights and freedoms. These rights may not be altered by Parliament except with the approval of two-thirds of the lower house. However, Parliament is also given the authority to pass special acts to deal with certain specified emergency situations, notwithstanding human rights guarantees found in other sections of the Constitution. The Attorney General's office has taken the view that any legislation introduced under the emergency powers provision would require the approval of two-thirds of the lower house. Critics of the Constitution maintain that only a simple majority would be needed and that indigenous Fijians in the lower house would be able, solely on the strength of their own numbers, to abrogate constitutional human rights protections. This interpretation has never been tested.

The President is selected by the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), a traditional Fijian leadership body. The President appoints the Fijian members of the Senate on the advice of the GCC and the provincial councils, and on his own judgment with regard to the nine members of other races. He appoints the one Rotuman senator on the advice of the Rotuman Council. The President chooses the Prime Minister, who, along with the Cabinet, holds most of the executive authority, from among the Fijian members of the lower house on the basis of ability to command majority support within that body.

Elections are held by secret ballot, with voting only by communal constituencies. The Constitution calls for elections every 5 years, but the Government may call an election at any time as it did the snap general election in February after failing to pass its 1994 budget. The Constitution provides for a formal review of its provisions within 7 years of its promulgation and every 10 years thereafter.

When Prime Minister Rabuka's 1994 budget was rejected by Parliament in November 1993, Rabuka asked the Acting President to dissolve that body in accordance with the Constitution. The subsequent snap general election in February, considered free and fair by all observers, returned Rabuka and his party to Parliament in strength. Rabuka was again selected as Prime Minister.

Fiji has a dozen political parties. Four are predominantly Indo-Fijian. The major ones, the National Federation Party (NFP) and the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) pledged to continue their opposition to the Constitution in the Parliament. NFP and FLP Indo-Fijian parliamentarians are joined on the opposition side of the legislature by another ethnic Fijian party (the Fijian Association) and one multiracial party (the All National Congress).

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no local groups in Fiji which focus solely on human rights matters, but the women's rights movement, the labor movement, and various political groups (including organized political parties) are engaged in promoting human rights. There are also several small, not very active, foreign-based organizations which concentrate on human rights causes in Fiji, including the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji (with offices in New Zealand and Australia) and two United Kingdom-based groups, the International Fiji Movement and the Movement for Democracy in Fiji.

The Government in past years inhibited certain investigations of the political and human rights situation by external organizations, considering them to constitute external interference in its domestic affairs. However, in 1994 it allowed foreign representatives to attend and participate in the University of the South Pacific's consultation on the national agenda. That discussion roundly criticized many government policies and politicians as well as the Constitution. The views expressed were fully and prominently covered in the press.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of, and provides specific affirmative action provisions to improve the conditions of those disadvantaged as a result of, race, sex, place of origin, political opinion, color, religion, or creed.

Women

Despite Constitutional provisions, the Government practiced a form of sexual discrimination in the recognition of spousal and offspring rights. For example, spouses of Fiji citizen women are not automatically granted residence, whereas spouses of Fiji citizen males are. Offspring of female ethnic Fijians married to nonethnic Fijians are not entitled to registry in the document governing which persons share in income from communal ownership of native lands, and who has the right to vote as an ethnic Fijian, and who holds ethnic Fijian-designated seats in Parliament. Men, however, confer ethnic Fijian status to their offspring regardless of the mother's ethnic background. In a high-profile 1992 court challenge to the registration restrictions, the son of a Chinese father and ethnic Fijian mother won his appeal to be registered as an ethnic Fijian. The Government withdrew its appeal of the decision in October. The long-term effects of the decision on registration restrictions and, thus, a woman's right to pass on her ethnic status remain unclear.

Women in both the Fijian and Indian communities have functioned primarily in traditional roles, although some women achieve responsible positions in the public service, politics and business. The female Minister of Education served as Acting Prime Minister during Prime Minister Rabuka's April-May visit to the United States. Women can also attain high status in Fiji's traditional chiefly system. The President's wife is, in her own right, Fiji's second highest ranking traditional chief. The Minister for Fijian Affairs, a woman, is widely believed to be the best candidate to become Fiji's highest ranking traditional chief.

In general, women in the Fijian community are more likely to rise to prominence in their own right than are women in the Indo-Fijian community. Women have full rights of property ownership and inheritance, and a number have become successful entrepreneurs. Women are generally paid less than men, a discrepancy that is especially notable in the garment industry. Garment workers, most of whom are female, are subject to a special minimum wage considerably lower than that in other sectors.

There is a small but active women's rights movement, which has pressed for more serious treatment of rape in the courts. The convicted persons tend to draw widely varying, but usually short, prison sentences (a few years). Efforts are under way to have all rape cases heard in the high court (vice magistrate's court at the accused's choice) where sentencing limits are higher.

Domestic violence is also a problem in Fiji and its mitigation is a second major focus of the women's movement. The authorities are generally reluctant to intervene in cases of domestic violence unless it is necessary to save the woman's life. Few cases result in prosecution, as the victim generally does not press charges. The Government has not been active in dealing with domestic violence.

Suva, the capital, and the regional center of Ba have privately funded women's crisis centers which offer counseling and assistance to women in cases of rape, domestic violence, and other problems, such as child support payments. There is, overall, a growing awareness of women's issues.

Children

Changes centered around the undermining of the traditional village and extended family-based society--and improvements in record keeping--have revealed a major problem of child abuse in Fiji. Reported cases have almost doubled over the last 4 years. The legal system is inadequate for protecting the rights of children, as children's testimony is inadmissible unless corroborated by an adult. The Government created a Child Welfare Committee in 1993 to address these problems, but it is likely to remain reluctant to become involved in family matters.

Corporal punishment is widely practiced in schools and at home. The Ministry of Education has guidelines for the administration of such punishment by principals and head teachers. One principal in the Rewa Delta area was fired in 1993 for overstepping these restrictions. There are credible reports that not all abuses are reported or punished.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The stated purpose of the 1987 military coups was to ensure the political supremacy of the indigenous Fijian people and to protect their traditional way of life and communal control of land. To this end, a number of measures have been taken that favor the Fijian community over other ethnic groups. The most obvious are the apportionment of seats in Parliament to guarantee a preponderance of ethnic Fijians and constitutional provisions ensuring selection of an ethnic Fijian president and prime minister. The Government is also committed to raising the proportion of ethnic Fijians and Rotumans in the public service to 50 percent or more at all levels. This is reflected in current promotion and hiring policies in the public service favoring ethnic Fijians; as a result some Indo-Fijians have complained that, despite their experience and higher educational achievements, they are not promoted beyond middle management.

Control of land is a highly sensitive issue. The British colonial administration instituted present land ownership arrangements to protect the interests of the indigenous Fijians, who currently hold, communally, about 83 percent of the land. Most cash crop farmers are Indo-Fijians, who lease their land from the Fijian landowners through the Native Lands Trust Board. Freehold land title is not an indigenous concept; lands owned currently by the State (8 percent) and by individuals (9 percent) were transferred from customary owners during the colonial period. Many Indo-Fijians, particularly farmers, believe that the absence of secure land tenure discriminates against them. Between 1997 and 2000, the majority of the current leases will expire. A review of the current land tenure and leasing arrangements is underway, with all indications that few changes will be made to the existing system.

People with Disabilities

Legal discrimination against physically disabled persons in employment, education, and provision of other state services in Fiji does not exist, however, there is no legislation or mandated provisions for accessibility for the disabled.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law protects workers' rights to form and join unions, elect their own representatives, publicize their views on labor matters, and determine their own policies, and this is observed in practice. However, the law permits restrictions to be applied to government employees; or in the interests of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health, or to protect the rights and freedoms of other persons. An estimated 19 percent of the labor force is unionized.

All unions must register with, but are not controlled by, the Government. The only central labor body is the Fiji Trade Union Congress (FTUC), which was closely associated with the opposition Fiji Labour Party until mid-1992. It currently takes a more independent political stance. The FTUC is free to associate internationally and does so. The labor movement is led largely by Indo-Fijians, with ethnic Fijians beginning to assume leadership roles. Persons with close ties to the Government have started rival unions primarily for ethnic Fijians; these unions are more amenable to political cooperation with the Government.

In April the Parliament completed a 2-year process of reforming labor legislation by amending the previous acts on industrial associations (eliminating a ban on holding multiple union officer positions) and trade unions (eliminating restrictions on seeking international support on labor issues).

Strikes are legal in Fiji, except in connection with union recognition disputes. The Government remains involved in certifying union strike balloting, which can be an elaborate process given the distance between some of the island locations in the country. The Ministry of Labour had recorded five strikes as of September 15.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Fiji law recognizes the right to organize and bargain collectively. Employers are required to recognize a union if more than half the employees in a workplace have joined it. Recognition is determined by union membership numbers rather than by an election. The Government has the power to order recalcitrant employers to recognize unions and has done so. Key sectors of the economy, including sugar and tourism, are heavily organized. Following the May 1992 elections, the Government lifted wage guidelines, and unrestricted collective bargaining on wages is now the norm.

Wage negotiations are conducted on an individual company or enterprise basis rather than on an industry-wide basis. A government proposal to introduce such negotiations has been opposed by employers and unions.

Antiunion discrimination is specifically prohibited by law. In practice, the unions are generally successful in preventing discrimination against workers for union activities, but the law does not mandate that fired workers be reinstated.

Fiji's export processing zones are subject to the same laws as the rest of the country, and many of their firms have unions which have negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution specifically prohibits forced labor, and there is no indication that it is practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Children under 12 may not be employed in any capacity. "Children" (under age 15) and "young persons" (ages 15-17) may not be employed in industry or work with machinery. Enforcement by the Ministry of Labour and Industrial Relations generally is effective, except in the case of family members working on family farms or businesses and "self-employed" younger street urchins. Education is not mandatory.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage. Certain sectors have minimum wages set by the Ministry for Labour and Industrial Relations, which effectively enforces them. Minimum wage levels will generally support a barely adequate standard of living in all sectors, except for the garment industry, in which the starting wage, $0.50 (F$0.72) for learners and $0.65 (F$0.94) for others, is based on the assumption that workers are young adults or married women living at home and not supporting a household.

Fiji has no regulation specifying maximum hours of work for adult males. Women are prohibited from night work in factories (other than overtime work in the garment industry) and underground work in mines. Certain industries, notably transportation and shipping, have problems with excessive hours of work. Indo-Fijians, who generally require a cash income to survive, are more vulnerable to pressure to work long hours than ethnic Fijians. Many ethnic Fijians can and do return to a non-cash economy way of life in their villages rather than work what they consider excessive hours.

Fiji has workplace safety regulations, a Workmens' Compensation Act, and an accident compensation plan. Awards for workers injured on the job are set by a tribunal. Government enforcement of safety standards under the direction of the Labor Ministry suffers from a lack of trained enforcement personnel, but the unions do a reasonable job of monitoring safety standards in organized workplaces. The International Labor Organizations recommendations in November 1992 cited the need to improve working conditions (problems are particularly widespread in the garment industry). The Government drafted legislation to address these shortcomings but Parliament had not acted on it by year's end.

Search Refworld

Countries