Promotion of Democracy and Rule of Law

EED and Partners’ Regional Conference Asia
17th to 21st November 2008
Phnom Penh , Cambodia
“Promotion of Democracy and Rule of Law”

Speech by Reverend Akuila Yabaki, Citizens’ Constitutional Forum, Suva, Fiji


It might be useful to remind the audience of a few facts about Fiji:
Fiji is an island group located in the South Pacific and comprising 320 islands. It is a former British colony and it has been independent since 1970.
According to the census conducted in 2007, there is a population of approximately 840.000 inhabitants made up of 57% indigenous Fijians, 38% Indo-Fijians and 5% other ethnic groups.

At first sight, Fiji is a country that has experience in practising democracy: since independence from Great Britain in 1970, there has been a Constitution, an elected Parliament making laws, an independent Judiciary and a Human Rights Commission. ( Fiji is even the only country in the Pacific to have a Human Rights Commission). Before the 2006 coup, a Freedom of Information law and a Code of Conduct were slated for legislation. So it looked as though there could be a functioning democracy in Fiji.

However, other circumstances undermined all this: Four (4) coups have taken place in the past 20 years: 2 in 1987, one in 2000 and the 4th, two years ago, in December 2006. At the moment, the country is being led by the Military; Parliament has been abolished (however not the Constitution) and a lot of efforts are being made in order to find a way re-instating a democracy that can be sustainable.

So what are the challenges that lead to a disruption of democracy?

A. Challenges to democracy – Fiji’s specific situation

1. A too-rapid transition to democracy:

Fiji is a young democracy: it is only 38 years old. Western countries had hundreds of years to develop their forms of democracy. And through these centuries, the evolution was anything but steady: it was made of many progress and relapses. In comparison, Fiji is undergoing an extremely rapid transition from traditional governance to a Western type of government. This process is happening within one or two generations, and this favours insecurity and instability.
Fiji is a country that is grappling with a transition from traditional to modern Western democracy, and the current situation is a compromise between these.

  • The structures and hierarchy of traditional Fijian society are reflected with the chiefly system at local level, in the Provincial Councils and in the Great Council of Chiefs.
  • In order to accommodate the traditional structures, there are special provisions in the Fijian Constitution (Chapter 2, the so-called Compact). While the Constitution protects the rights and freedoms of all citizens, the rights of indigenous Fijians are given special recognition and extra protection. The 3 guiding principles for this are:
    • the ownership of indigenous Fijian land according to custom,
    • the rights of the indigenous Fijian and Rotuman [1] people to governance through their separate administrative systems and
    • the principle that where the interests of different communities are seen to conflict, “the paramouncy of Fijian interests continues to apply, so as to ensure that the interests of the Fijian community are not subordinated to the interests of other communities”.

Nevertheless, there remains a fear among many indigenous Fijians, that their ancestral rights, especially their land rights, could be taken away from them. This fear is being exploited by ethno-nationalists. In 2000, the coup was perpetrated under the excuse of upholding indigenous rights, even though these rights were entrenched in the Constitution.

2. Democratic culture

A further challenge is that a democratic culture has not yet solidified. There has been no constant engagement by the people between elections. The voters elect their representatives every 5 years, but there is no further engagement between the elections, no active role by the citizens, and civil society in Fiji is minimally organized in interest groups.

It is the elites, the traditional leaders and church leaders who approach and lobby the government, while the people are left out. Politicians and law makers are not open and responsive to public action and to being lobbied. In that sense, democracy in Fiji is not really a democracy of the people, by the people and for the people.

Traditionally, there is also a culture of silence and obedience to authority, which facilitates corruption, and abuse of power by those in positions of power.

After each coup, the rule of law has been maintained. People do go to court. However, there has been a process of legitimation each time. Governments have been overthrown and then not re-instated. Instead, those having perpetrated the coup have been legitimised. This pattern of pragmatism is disturbing, as it can result in a culture of impunity. It is easier to get away with staging a coup than with common crimes.

3. The role of the Army

The Army was significantly involved in all four coups.
There is in Fiji traditionally a strong warrior tradition. The Fijian Army, the Royal Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), acquired an outstanding reputation in WWII as well as in its peacekeeping missions in the Lebanon, and Sinai, and more recently in Iraq.
However, the RFMF is politicised along racial lines and as 99% of the soldiers are ethnic Fijians, it identifies inevitably with ethnic Fijian interests and not with the interests of all the citizens of Fiji. In the past, it has been easily manipulated by ethno-nationalists.
The Fijian Army is not subject to civilian power, Parliament or government. it is not publicly accountable for expenditure. There is no specific Ministry of Defence. The Army is theoretically dependent on the Ministry of Home Affairs, but it sees itself as an independent entity.
Further, the Army understands its job, the protection of Fiji, as being the internal protection of the country and not the protection of the country against an external enemy. This is the direct legacy of colonialism, as the army was first created in order to defend the interests of the settlers, and not the interest of the country against external threats. This tradition has remained.
At the end of 2006, one of the main reasons given for perpetrating the coup was that the government of the time was corrupt and that a “clean-up” was needed. The Commander of the armed forces understood it as his duty to perform the “clean-up”.

4. A division of society along the races

Fiji ’s society and political system are strongly divided along racial lines. They are divided into ethnic Fijians, Indo-Fijians and “Others”. This is the result of nearly a century of British colonial rule, during which approximately 60,000 indentured labourers were brought from the Indian sub-continent to farm sugar and other crops. At the same time, the indigenous population of Fiji was kept apart and encouraged to maintain its traditional lifestyle. Up to 1970, when the country achieved its independence, life in Fiji was ethnically segregated in almost every sphere. The nation has been dealing with the consequences of that segregation ever since.

Society in Fiji is ethnically structured in virtually all areas:

  • There are Fijian schools and Indo-Fijian schools;
  • The military is nearly100% Fijian,
  • The police force and civil service have majorities of Fijians, especialy inupper ranks, while businesses are run by Indo-Fijians;
  • The vast majority of indigenous Fijians are Christians, while Indo-Fijians are either Hindus or Muslims.

There is no mutual trust between those communities, and the distrust is easily exploited by demagogical ethno-nationalist politicians.

The division along the races is further solidified by the electoral system: Communal voting. There is a set number of seats in Parliament:
Of a total of 71 seats 23 are reserved for Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 4 for other groups. The remaining 25 seats are open to all. Such a system entrenches the divisions between the races, and, it cannot be considered as fully democratic.

This challenges the development of a full democratic culture. The division of societyby race, with Indo-Fijians still often called “foreigners”, is a key element preventing full democracy or democratic culture. Whenever citizens are or feel they are second-class citizens, or not full citizens of the country, they do not really engage.

But it is also important to note that further divisions exist within each ethnic group, particularly amongst indigenous Fijians. This appeared quite clearly on the occasion of the 2006 coup, when a section of the indigenous Fijians sided with the ousted government and another section with the military-led government.

5. Declining economic situation

The economic situation is declining and there is currently a drastic rise in poverty and unemployment. This is another factor putting democracy still more at risk, as it fosters insecurity. Some of the reasons for this decline are:

  • A deterioration of the main industry, the sugar industry;
  • Lack of access to land for non-indigenous people;
  • A high level of emigration by skilled people;
  • The impact of globalisation.

B. What can be the role of civil society in overcoming the failure of democracy?

The creation of a truly democratic culture cannot happen overnight. It has to grow, like a plant, in a gradual and continuous process. In this process, civil society has a critical role to play. What can civil society do to overcome the challenges mentioned above?

  • Firstly, there is a basic need to identify what kind of democracy best suits our societies. Is there a way of adapting or tailoring a model of democracy to Pacific peoples’ specific values and systems of governance? This reflection is necessary given the political instability and civil unrest that have afflicted not only Fiji, but also a number of its neighbours like the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, New Caledonia and more recently Tonga. Finding forms of democracy best suited to the Pacific requires us to be creative, to think out of the box. This is for example one of the issues discussed by our colleagues from the Institute for Research and Social Analysis (IRSA) at the Pacific Theological College in Suva.
  • Secondly, it is essential to educate and to advocate, as the only way to empower people. It is essential that people learn how their country is governed, that they know their rights and learn to make use of them. It is essential to generate further discussion on the active role they can play in a democratic society.
  • It is civil society organisations’ role to build a constant culture of civil society presentations to parties, strengthening parliamentary oversight through its research and watchdog role, checking compliance with international agreements and with election promises.

For an organisation like CCF, this means relentlessly bringing up the relevant issues in publications, in interviews, through press releases, letters to newspaper editors and published opinion pieces

CCF has also gathered a long experience in educating at grass-roots level through its community workshops on citizenship, good governance, leadership, and electoral systems, including how to cast a valid vote. While conducting those workshops, we have to dispel over and over again misconceptions that are entrenched in people’s minds. One of them for example, concerning citizenship, is that in order to be a citizen of Fiji, you need to be registered in the Fiji Register for Landowners (the Vola ni kawa bula) If this were fact, and not a gross misconception, only indigenous Fijians (i.e. 57% of the population) could be citizens of Fiji.
In our country, the empowerment of people also means fighting state and structural racism which is one of the major obstacles to democratic thinking and acting. It means bridging the gaps that have been artificially created between communities by those who benefit by these divisions and have no interest in bringing about democracy.

However, it is important to understand and address the fears and concerns, real or perceived, of the grassroots rural population. These are the fears that ethno-nationalists are exploiting to their own benefit.

  • Thirdly, the sustained efforts in bringing about a democratic culture have to happen in a concerted manner. It is vital to build alliances among civil society actors who are to complement each other. They all bring a variety of experiences, expertises and scopes of influence. Other actors can be other NGOs, and also actors like Churches. In February 2008, the drafting of the shadow report to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was a joint effort by CCF and another two Fiji civil society organisations.
  • Fourthly, it is critical for civil society organisations to lobby those who hold power. Here are two examples of past successful lobbying in Fiji:
    • CCF’s lobbying of the Reeves Commission, the commission drafting the 1997 Constitution, for the introduction into the new constitution of a Bill of Rights and the provision of power-sharing by elected governments;
    • the Fiji Women Crisis Centre’s lobbying of Parliament for improved family laws, like the abrogation of the corroboration rule in Fiji’s legislation (a rule stipulating that a rape had to be witnessed by a third person in order to be recognized).

However, lobbying those who hold power raises the issue of lobbying in extraordinary times. How do you lobby and do you lobby at all when the elected government is deposed and there is an illegal government in place?

On 5 December 2006, the Fiji military forces conducted a coup, ousting the elected government, since when they have been running the country.
In January 2008, this military government, in a bid to move the country forward, created a National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF), tasked with the drafting of a so-called “People’s Charter for Change, Peace and Progress”. This Charter’s objective was to address for the first time the roots causes of Fiji’s problems. It was not designed to replace the Constitution, but rather to complement it. The Interim Government called upon all sectors and actors of society in Fiji (civil society, churches, institutions, etc) to participate in the debates and in the drafting of this Charter.

The issue of engaging or not engaging brought about a clear divide amongst civil society organisations in Fiji.

Many of them refused to participate in this process, not because they disagreed with the idea of drafting a Charter for Fiji, but because the Charter had been initiated by the military government, an illegal government, and they saw any participation in the Charter process as an implicit backing of this government.

Some NGOs, including us, CCF, decided to take a bold stand, and agreed to participate in the drafting of this charter.
CCF strongly condemned the 2006 coup. However, we felt that accepting to be part of the process, which included sitting at one table with people from the illegal government, was the only way to influence the process from inside, to move the country forward and also to provide input in terms of the values for which CCF has always stood. Clearly, we were supporting the government’s idea of a Charter, not the government itself.

We made the decision to engage knowing that we would be criticized for it and that if our intention was misunderstood, we might run the risk of compromising CCF’s reputation.
We put the following conditions to our participation:

  1. The 1997 Constitution would not be abrogated;
  2. The process would not interfere with the roadmap for a return to democracy;
  3. We would be as inclusive of possible, including also the parties and members of government who had been deposed;
  4. There would be freedom of expression during the deliberation, and there would be no reprisals against people expressing opinions contrary to the those of the Interim Government
  5. The future role of the military forces would be added to the agenda for consultation.
    All these conditions were accepted.

One of the major changes proposed by the Charter and strongly supported by CCF is a reform of the electoral system. The idea was to remove the race-based system and permit introduction of proportional representation to be Fiji’s electoral system, in order to bring about a genuine democratic representation.

Another issue tackled by the Charter is the eradication of the coup culture in Fiji, as coups have gravely undermined democratic governance and the rule of law. There are no long-term winners in coups.

A further point was the creation of a common identity including all citizens of Fiji, as well as the removal of all state-sanctioned or sponsored racism; and the promotion of multi-culturalism.

Currently, CCF along with other CSOs are strongly promoting a political dialogue process such as has never taken place before, in order to achieve a roadmap towards national reconciliation.

As a conclusion , I would like to say that civil society organisations can and must walk out of the beaten tracks in specific situations. During our engagement with the Charter process throughout 2008, we looked at how other countries, for example South Africa, had managed under the difficult circumstances of their transition from apartheid to democracy. Even though each country has its own unique experience, we believe in the importance of sharing those experiences and we are grateful for this conference that gives us the opportunity to do so with organisations from Southeast Asia.

Thank you.



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