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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Where Sunlight Does Not Reach in Paradise

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

Based in the heart of the South Pacific, 333 tropical islands bathe in a daily dose of sunlight. The white sand, lush palm trees and crystal blue water paint a picture that many would pronounce paradise. This was the case for my sister who took part in a volunteer project in Kadavu - the 4th largest island in the Fijian archipelago and home to 1% of the total population. She lived for a couple of months in the village of Namalta - a small village of around 400 people. She worked at a local school, teaching the kids English and Sports, living with a host family in a corrugated iron house. The home had a combined living room and kitchen and only one bedroom shared between seven people (plus the not-so-occasional rat). The family had practically nothing.

But my sister described them as the happiest and most generous people she had ever met. They gave anything they could: they gave their bed to her for their whole stay and slept on the floor as well as gifting her a daily banquet of freshly caught fish, always with smiles on their faces. She saw a side to Fiji that tourists who only go for a relaxing holiday do not see.

Her experience differed greatly from the Fiji depicted on idyllic images. It highlighted how not everything on the islands is graced by sunlight, the shadows mask a darker story.

That of torture-

Nimilote Verebasaga. Died of hemorrhagic shock due to injuries to vital organs as a result of military beating.

Sakiusa Rabaka. Severely beaten, sexually assaulted and forced to do military exercises by a joint taskforce of military and police. Died from his injuries.

Vilikesa Soko. Beaten and sexually assaulted after his arrest as a suspect in a robbery case. His autopsy report was leaked online, showing severe physical trauma leading to multiple organ failure and his death.

Rajneel Singh. Assaulted on three separate occasions by the security forces. Picked up in a police vehicle. Driven to a remote location. Beaten, burned and left by the police.

Isaac James. Taken for questioning at police station and detained for two nights. Denied food and water. Beaten by police using sticks, a police belt and a screwdriver.

These cases are only a few examples of the ingrained culture of torture in Fiji. During the regional workshop on the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading treatment and Punishment in 2016, Fiji’s Prime Minister – Vorege Bainimarama – acknowledged Fiji’s culture of resorting to violence. Impacting all aspects of daily life, he said ‘the culture of buturaki – the beating – is deeply ingrained in parts of the Fijian pysche’ – from ‘instilling discipline in our children’ to ‘the police attempting to extract confessions from criminal suspects’.

Years after the 2006 military coup in Fiji, this culture of torture remains poignant. An analysis of Fiji’s Constitution illustrates that Section 11 provides for the right to freedom from torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. However, it also contains sections granting extensive criminal and civil immunity to the military, police and other government officials for violations committed spanning a variety of years and events, including the past coups in 2006, 2000 and 1987.

These immunities have become a central part of the country’s coup culture, creating a ‘black hole’ in legal protection against torture or other ill-treatment, as perpetrators are exempt from any liability.

These coups have led to close ties being formed between the police and military and has resulted in the military playing a direct role in the executive and legislative branches of government. This raises questions of the ability to hold officers accountable for human rights violations when they occur. This holds important weight when balanced against the fact that when the military are involved in policing matters, human rights violations are more likely to occur and the most serious cases of torture and other ill-treatment arose from a joint military-police taskforce.

In addition, following each coup, the incoming legal order has entrenched immunities in law which ensures that the military is technically above the law. For example, Fiji’s current Constitution entrenches immunities for any government action between 2006 and 2014, and reaffirms immunities for events surrounding the 2000 coup. In the rare case that a perpetrator has been prosecuted, custodial sentences can be reduced under ‘Community Supervision Orders’, allowing police and military officers to be released within weeks of being convicted and automatically return to their post. These act as loopholes and when combined with further institutional weaknesses, including limitations placed on the Fiji Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Commission, deny many people any sort of compensation for abuse.

Amnesty International Pacific Researcher, Kate Schuetze, said ‘in Fiji, accountability for torture is the exception rather than the rule’.

Schutze rightly acknowledges that ‘if Fiji wants to preserve its reputation as a Pacific island national renowned for its natural beauty, it must end the ugly practices of its security officials’. These practices have potentially stemmed from a lack of safeguards within the current legal framework alongside no independent oversight, granting immunity and torture being poorly defined in law. Section 87 of the Crimes Decree makes torture, where it amounts to crimes against humanity, a criminal offence, with a penalty of up to 25 years in prison. This is inadequate as it does not cover offences which do not amount to crimes against humanity, and therefore Fiji has failed to criminalize torture in line with its obligations.

This legal definition of torture sis still am important issue today, even after Fiji ratified the Convention Against Torture in March 2016. This is clearly a positive step though Fiji has made a number of significant reservations. Fiji will define what constitutes torture and will not allow the UN Committee Against Torture to review its compliance with its obligations or rule on complaints. They also do not recognise the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. These reservations make the ratification an almost empty, symbolic gesture that will remain so until decisive action is taken.

Despite Prime Minster Bainimarama affirming that Fiji has never had a state sanctioned policy of inflicting cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment in Fiji, he acknowledges that they have had ‘occasional problems’ with individuals or groups violating the right of others. This potentially masks the scale and extent of the issues surrounding torture. Nevertheless, he has pledged to implement measures to eliminate torture. Corporal punishment is now banned, in the hope that if children are not beaten institutionally, they will not grow up to beat others. There is now zero tolerance for torture and other human rights abuses. These will be implemented through education and deterrence in the ranks of disciplined forces. Video recording of police interviews, access to a lawyer and changes to the penal code are also signs of progress.

Fiji has also sought the engagement of the international community to assist with further elimination of torture. For example, the EU has provided invaluable assistance through the Access to Justice Programme. Fiji regards Britain as a role mode, and through their traditions of enlightened policing and historical links with Fiji, the Pacific nation is seeking closer ties with law enforcement agencies in Britain. They value their training of police officers and look to the British Government, as well as the UN Development Programme for contribution, to help raise standards in the Fiji police. The state also accepted an invitation to join the CTI core group – a network based on cooperation, allowing the exchange of knowledge, experience and ideas regarding how best to overcome obstacles to ratification and/or implementation. This follows an impressive process of justice sector reforms, putting in place a series of measures to prevent torture.

These all mark positive steps towards a brighter future in Fiji, where the typical postcard photo of sun and sea is no longer a disguised front but a reality. I agree with Amnesty International who acknowledge that this change in culture is imperative to prevent future acts of torture. It will take time but through strong leadership, a commitment to upholding human rights and strengthening the institutions that hold perpetrators accountable, it is possible. Through dedication to implementing changes, it is true that no matter how dark today is, the sun will shine again.

Alex Orr

Section Editor

International Law


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