The Honourable Attorney-General,
Members of the Judiciary from Fiji and overseas,
Your Excellency, Indonesia’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva representing the CTI Core Group,
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,
The Secretary General of the Association for the Prevention of Torture.
The Representative in the Pacific of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,
The Commissioner of Police,
Representatives of civil society organisations,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.
Fiji is delighted to be hosting this regional workshop on the implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture in the Pacific. And while I’m told that it is largely technical in nature, I’m delighted as Prime Minister to be here to open it to explain the great strides that Fiji is making in the area of human rights. And to urge other Pacific nations to join Fiji and the other two countries in the region – Vanuatu and Nauru – that have already ratified UNCAT.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a positive story to tell in Fiji about our own effort to prevent torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. And I want to convey that story in the overall context of the global campaign against such practices.
For a start, our Constitution – our supreme law – prohibits torture in our Bill of Rights and in very precise terms: Section Eleven unequivocally states that “every person has the right to freedom from torture of any kind, whether physical, mental or emotional, and from cruel, inhumane, degrading or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment”. It further states that “every person has the right to security of the person, which includes the right to be free from any form of violence from any source at home, school, work or in any other place”.
This statement of our values as a nation establishes, for the Fijian people, one of the strongest constitutional protections against torture in the world. In fact, our reservation to Article One of UNCAT is based on the fact that our own definition of torture is actually broader than that covered by the Convention because it extends to specific protection for our citizens at home, at school and at work.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, we do not have – and never have had – a state-sanctioned policy of torture in Fiji. We do not have – and never have had – a state-sanctioned policy of inflicting cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment in Fiji.
What we have had are occasional problems with individuals or groups of people taking the law into their own hands and violating the human rights of others. But I repeat: no act of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment has been sanctioned by the State. And this is in stark contrast with many other countries in the world, including some of the great democracies.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept that the issue of torture is a vexed one for many countries given the current global security climate and especially for those nations that are under direct attack in the war on terror. But it is a tragedy for the whole world that in the interests of state-security, democratic societies feel obliged to cling to practices that belong to another age and violate the most basic standards of human decency and human dignity.
Even that standard bearer for democracy – the United States of America – has resorted to torture, with the stated objective of protecting itself against a determined and ruthless enemy.
While the practice has now been banned by Presidential order, the CIA has admitted using water boarding against captured terrorist suspects, extracting information from them through a process that replicates the sensation of drowning.
As for the other pillar of UNCAT – the use of “Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” – there is a stark example closer to home in Australia’s policy of detaining asylum seekers offshore, including in some of our Pacific neighbouring countries.
While Australia maintains that this policy is necessary to stem the tide of asylum seekers, it has clearly been at the expense of the rights of ordinary men, women and children seeking refuge from some of the most troubled places on earth.
Successive United Nations and other human rights reports have strongly criticised the conditions faced by asylum seekers being held on Nauru and Manus Island. The latest – less than three weeks ago by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Children – condemns the physical and mental state of children being detained on Nauru.
Fiji shares the widespread concern in the international community about the position of asylum seekers in these detention centres, and especially women and children. As well as the wider issue of Australia dumping this problem on its Pacific neighbours when it clearly has the capacity to house these people within its own borders.
In the case of the United States and Australia with the examples I have given, these have been state policies – a deliberate course of action taken by democratically elected governments. America using an acknowledged method of torture to combat terrorism. Australia detaining innocent people in cruel, inhumane or degrading circumstances to protect the integrity of its borders.
What we have had by contrast in Fiji is vastly different though no less serious. Isolated instances of individuals or groups from the disciplined forces acting in an undisciplined way and resorting to acts of torture and other forms of punishment that violate the human rights of their fellow citizens.
The same conduct has occurred from time to time in the law enforcement agencies of larger democracies, including Australia and New Zealand. And while they can never be condoned, whatever the setting, the difference in Fiji’s case is that such events have been politicised. We are singled out for condemnation, for behaviour that also occurs in the jurisdictions of our critics.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am not excusing such behaviour in any shape or form. I merely ask that Fiji be judged by the same standards that apply to any nation. And I want to make Fiji’s position on this issue absolutely clear once and for all.
We do not tolerate human rights abuses of any kind. They are legally and morally unacceptable. And we are determined to bring the perpetrators of such abuses to justice.
The record shows that we are doing so – that our laws are being enforced.
Our Police Commissioner is currently investigating whether excessive force was used in the recent apprehension of a group of suspected criminals in Navua that was captured on video by a passer-by. We also have a trial in Lautoka for the alleged rape and subsequent death of a detainee, Vilikesa Soko.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is also worth placing such issues in a wider social context.
We have long had a culture in Fiji of people resorting to violence. Whether it is against women in the home, instilling discipline in our children or the police attempting to extract confessions from criminal suspects.
This culture of what we call the buturaki – the beating – is deeply ingrained in parts of the Fijian psyche. But it is simply not acceptable in the modern age. So we have embarked on a process of culture change starting in the nation’s schools. There, we have banned corporal punishment in the hope that if children aren’t beaten institutionally, they don’t grow up beating others. And we are saying far more forcefully than we have said in the past that violence in any form has no place in Fijian life.
We are also making it clear in the ranks of the disciplined forces through a process of education and deterrence that we have a policy of zero tolerance for torture and other human rights abuses. Whatever may have occurred in the relative turmoil of the past, we have drawn a line under such behaviour. A line under the past. The provisions in our Constitution prohibiting such practices must be respected and without exception. And this applies especially to our law enforcement agencies.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are also seeking the engagement of the international community to assist us in this effort. I want to publicly thank the European Union for its invaluable assistance to Fiji through our Access to Justice Program. And I want to thank both the British Government and the United Nations Development Program for the contribution they are making to raise standards in the Fiji Police.
We regard Britain – with its tradition of enlightened policing and its historical links to Fiji – as a strong role model. And we are seeking closer ties with the law enforcement agencies of the United Kingdom. In particular, we seek assistance to improve the training of our police officers in modern investigative and questioning techniques. Because better training is clearly the key to a better overall performance on the part of our law enforcement officers.
Britain is already partnering with us on a six month pilot project at the Totogo Police Station in Suva in what is called First Hour Procedure – providing every suspect with legal aid assistance within the first hour of arrest. And in digitally recording police caution interviews with suspects to provide greater transparency in the arrest and detention procedure.
We intend – after this pilot program – to introduce First Hour Procedure and the digital recording of caution interviews throughout Fiji. So that there is no doubt whatsoever when cases reach the courts about the content of police interviews or the veracity of the process. It will bring to an end any suggestion that confessions are being extracted by force.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I know that many of the challenges we face in Fiji will be familiar to some of you from other Pacific nations. But I urge you all to seriously consider ratifying UNCAT. Fiji – in common with many other nations – had reservations about endorsing all of its clauses and your governments may well decide to have similar reservations. But this is no impediment to ratification. And if more Pacific nations do so, this will send a powerful signal from our own region to the rest of the world about our commitment to human rights and human dignity.
I want to close by saying that Fiji stands ready to assist any of our neighbours with the ratification process. On behalf of the Fijian people, I warmly thank the members of the Convention Against Torture Initiative. And especially the representative of the core group, His Excellency the Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations in Geneva.
I also want to especially mention the Secretary General of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, Mark Thomson. Mark grew up in Fiji and we were childhood neighbours at Natabua. So welcome home, Mark, and vinaka vakalevu for what you are doing to promote the rights of people around the world.
A warm welcome to all our international visitors and I hope that beyond the conference venue, you get to see some of our beautiful country and experience our world famous Fijian hospitality. And I now have great pleasure to officially open this regional workshop on implementing the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.