Home Civil Society Voices Rising sea levels put survival of Pacific nations at risk

Rising sea levels put survival of Pacific nations at risk

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Communities in Fiji have been displaced by rising sea levels, including in Vunidogoloa, points out Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

This was the first visit by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Fiji. I am grateful to the government for its invitation and openness to a frank dialogue about the country’s many achievements in advancing the human rights of its people, as well as the gaps and challenges.

During my three-day visit, I had the honour of meeting with President Konrote, Prime Minister Bainimarama, Attorney General Sayed-Khaiyum as well as other high-level officials, Fiji’s human rights and legal institutions, the speaker of Parliament, the chief justice, members of the opposition and representatives of civil society who are working on issues with important ramifications for the human rights of the people of Fiji.

Climate change threat

Fiji stands tall at the regional and international level in its advocacy to mitigate and address the existential threats posed by climate change.

Fiji has facilitated the successful and meaningful inclusion of civil society into international climate action negotiations through its talanoa dialogue platform in the run up to COP24, so that those most affected have a voice at the global level. Fiji is also leading the way in the Pacific region in building climate resilience and combating climate change.

While I was unfortunately unable to carry out a planned visit to Vunisavisavi village due to torrential rains, my colleagues from the UN Human Rights Regional Office for the Pacific have visited communities displaced by rising sea levels, including in Vunidogoloa, the first village to have been relocated as a result of climate change in Fiji.

They have seen first-hand the impact of saltwater intrusion on agricultural lands, with coconut, breadfruit and banana trees dying, and food sources destroyed. And they witnessed the deep cultural and emotional ties to land and heritage. Ancestral grounds have been submerged, as has the home of a paramount chief in Vunisavisavi. Stronger cyclones, changing weather patterns and deteriorating marine ecosystems have left these communities more vulnerable than ever.

Recovery from the February 2015 Tropical Cyclone Winston – which reportedly slashed a third of Fiji’s GDP – is still ongoing.

Climate change has a profound impact on a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life, self-determination, development, food, health, water and sanitation, and housing.

The Pacific Islands have been raising the alarm on the impact of climate change since at least 1991, when the then South Pacific Forum (now the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat) issued a statement warning that the cultural, economic and physical survival of Pacific nations was at great risk.

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Fiji’s leadership at the international level is crucial in reminding all states – particularly those responsible for the lion’s share of fossil fuel emissions – of their obligation to cooperate and assist each other in ensuring the rights of all people are respected and protected.

Those who have contributed the least to climate change are suffering the most and must be meaningful participants in and the primary beneficiaries of climate action. Climate resilience, climate justice and human rights are key priorities for our regional office and we look forward to working closely with Fiji on them.

Ratify UN treaties

In my meetings with senior government officials, including the prime minister and the attorney general, I urged Fiji to build on the momentum of its international leadership on climate change by ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

This year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the wisdom of this historic document was operationalised in these two covenants. I urge Fiji to accede to both covenants and to ensure that its legislation is in line with their provisions.

I welcome the government’s commitment to ratify all nine core international human rights treaties by 2020. I also call on the government to withdraw its reservations to the UN Convention Against Torture, particularly regarding the definition of torture and access to remedies, and ratify the Optional Protocol to this Convention.

Civil society organisations stressed to me their keen desire to see swift ratification of the ICCPR. This group of passionate and constructive human rights defenders shared their concerns and offered practical ideas to work towards resolving long-standing human rights issues. They expressed frustration at what they described as a narrow civic space and the suppression of dissenting voices.

Overly broad laws can be and have been used to prosecute journalists whose work is deemed to be against the “public interest or public order”, with violations punishable by fines of up to FJ$1,000 (US$530) or imprisonment of up to two years under the Media Industry Development (Amendment) Act 2015. Media organisations can be fined up to FJ$100,000.

This is highly worrying and reportedly has the effect of inhibiting investigative journalism and coverage of issues that are deemed sensitive, as well as discouraging a plurality of views. There have also been a lot of discussions recently about regulating hate speech and “fake news”.

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I have urged the Government to ensure that any attempts to legislate on issues relating to freedom of expression are in line with articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR, and for them to consult the Rabat Plan of Action for guidance on drawing the delicate lines between permissible speech and speech that may amount to incitement.

The recommendations of the special rapporteur on racism, who visited Fiji in December 2016, should also be heeded on this issue. The special tapporteur has cautioned that laws to combat hate speech must be carefully construed and applied to ensure that they do not curtail legitimate expression.

While there are a number of independent institutions, including the Constitutional Affairs Commission, the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission (HRADC) and the Fiji Elections Office, I am concerned about a basic structural flaw that brings into question whether these bodies are truly autonomous.

Independent national human rights institutions can be extremely effective in serving as a link between a government and civil society. An institution that can hold up a mirror to the state will enable the state to strengthen itself. I therefore urge the government to ensure that its independent institutions are truly autonomous – in its finances, administration and membership.

Violence against women due to underrepresentation

The high rate of violence against women remains one of the biggest human rights problems in Fijian society, in spite of important steps taken by the government to combat it, including through the establishment of a national helpline on domestic violence. The hyper-masculinity that drives violence against women is really just a form of cowardice.

One human rights defender rightly pointed out that gender-based violence is a result of the power imbalance within homes, society at large as well as in state institutions. Women are underrepresented at every level of state authority.

I urge the government to take measures to increase the number of women in the police force, parliament and within the executive, and to ensure that sufficient resources are allocated to combat gender-based violence. Fourteen percent of parliamentarians in Fiji are women. While this is an increase over previous years and among the highest rates in the Pacific, there is clearly a long way to go.

It is also important to recognise the link between the effects of climate change and the incidence of violence against women. It has been well-documented that gender-based violence, including sexual violence rates rise considerably in the aftermath of natural disasters. Measures to prevent violence against women must be worked into disaster-preparedness plans, through consultation with women and with their active involvement.

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Civil society groups also articulated their concerns about discrimination and violence against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex communities in Fiji, in spite of the welcome constitutional ban on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

I call on the government to draw upon the wisdom and knowledge of civil society organisations domestically, as they do at the international level. There is clearly a need for an improved talanoa, a space for people to talk about the most difficult issues. There are many issues in Fiji that need to be aired, and the government will need to open up the space for that to happen.

Civil and political rights are not a threat to government. On the contrary, opening up the space to argue and debate results in better laws and policies, and Fiji will be stronger and healthier for it. All rights need to progress together and be honoured, as they are interlinked.

Ensure credible elections

As Fiji prepares for its general elections this year, it is particularly critical for it to ensure that there is an environment conducive to a participatory process. There are concerns that as an election date has yet to be announced, this may leave political parties and civil society little time to engage and participate meaningfully.

As a young democracy, Fiji has an opportunity in the forthcoming elections to empower civil society organisations to serve as observers, to ensure free, credible elections. It would also be advisable to have international observers carry out election monitoring to demonstrate confidence in its domestic processes and cement its global reputation as a democratic power.

I was honoured with a warm, humbling welcome to Fiji in a traditional ceremony that my hosts explained bestows goodwill and friendship on the guest. Indeed, I came to Fiji as a friend and admirer of this resilient Pacific island state, and I am convinced that our friendship has been strengthened by our constructive exchanges during this visit.

My regional office for the Pacific has been based in Fiji since 2005 and works closely with numerous state institutions, including the police and corrections services, as well as the national human rights institutions. We look forward to continuing to advise and support – and sometimes give a friendly nudge – to the government to help ensure that all Fijians are able to enjoy all their human rights.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein delivered the above remarks at at a press conference during his mission to Fiji on 12 February 2018.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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