Fiji Government Further Criticized Over Draft Constitution
By Sean Dorney, Pacific Correspondent
MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Feb. 8, 2013) – The military-ruled Fiji is getting a new constitution, but it won't be the one drafted after extensive public consultation.
The military-ruled Fiji is getting a new constitution, but it won't be the one drafted after extensive public consultation.
It's been six years since Commodore Bainimarama led a military coup which removed the prime minister, followed later by the suspension of the constitution.
A draft constitution, prepared by an internationally respected constitutional lawyer, was presented to the president at the end of last year, in preparation for promised 2014 democratic elections.
At a military parade last week Commodore Bainimarama told the troops that draft constitution was unacceptable.
"It was seen that it was not without flaws, it did not correspond with the idea that the government of Fiji has a blueprint for a Constitution to take us forward," he said.
Professor Brij Lal, who was involved in drawing up the draft for the 1997 constitution that Commodore Bainimarama abolished, says the rejection is not a surprise.
"I think one thing that the Ghai Commission recommended that the regime might have found unpalatable was this idea that, you know, the soldiers should go back to the barracks and that they should be under no obligation to obey illegal orders," he said.
In the next few weeks a new draft constitution, drawn up by Fiji's attorney-general's department, will be put before a Constitutional Assembly whose members will be handpicked by Commodore Bainimarama.
"[The new constitution is being] prepared by faceless men and women in the attorney-general's office, with no accountability to the public, except to their masters," Professor Lal said.
That was not the plan forecast by Commodore Bainimarama when the Constitutional Commission was established last year.
"Every Fijian who wants to contribute and be forward looking in the creation of an enlightened constitution will have the opportunity to do so," he said at the time.
"For the first time everyone will have a voice."
Professor Yash Ghai from Kenya and his Commissioners travelled extensively around Fiji for three months and heard more than 7,000 submissions.
The Constitutional Commission completed its draft constitution but when Yash Ghai made copies for the public his office was raided by the police, the copies were confiscated and he was alleged to have broken the law.
Professor Brij Lal says the military even accused him of doing the bidding of Australia and New Zealand who had helped Fiji fund the public consultations.
"I find it incredible, I find it truly incredible that the regime would appoint such an eminent person to draft a constitution, and then denigrate him once his draft was found to be unacceptable to the powers that be," he said.
Commodore Bainimarama's government has also brought down a decree governing political parties.
Parties have been given just 28 days to register with a confirmed, paid up membership of at least 5,000 people, drawn proportionally from all four divisions of the country.
Professor Lal says the decree is questionable, given there has been no political activity in the country since the coup in 2006.
"No freedom of speech, political parties were in a limbo, party infrastructure was in disarray and rusting," he said.
"So I think the regime thought that by this decree they might catch some of these parties on the hop...and hobble them."
The Director of Fiji's Citizens Constitutional Forum says the process is back to front - the Constitution should be adopted first before regulating political parties.
"It's actually forcing compliance for political parties rather than...about what the democratic process is all about," he said.
"The political parties have to base their political power base on the new constitution.
Commodore Bainimarama's concern about political parties may have been part of the reason he ordered an Australian long time Catholic missionary, Father Kevin Barr, out of the country after sending him abusive text messages.
The threatened deportation was reversed after an outcry but Father Barr says he'd attended a Fiji Trade Union Congress conference, at which the formation of a new party was discussed.
"I'd simply given a talk about social justice to the conference and the formation of the party was one of the items on the agenda of the meeting," he said.
"I think the media may have been responsible for a misinterpretation of what had happened and caused some problems."
Commodore Bainimarama is expected to announce the membership of the Constituent Assembly that will approve the new constitution shortly.
"In just a short while we will announce the members of the Constituent Assembly," he said.
"We the military will not be detached (from this process); we will have a representative in the Constituent Assembly which will prepare a new constitution to take Fiji towards a prosperous and peaceful future."
Commodore Bainimarama has promised the new constitution will be in place by March.
Copyright © 2013 Radio Australia. All Rights Reserved
Go back to Pacific Islands Report