I rise this afternoon to speak to the House in support of Fiji’s decision to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT).
But before I do, I wish to say something about the terrible events that have befallen the people of Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam.
Yesterday, I sent a message of sympathy and support to the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, the Honorable Joe Natuman, telling him that the thoughts and prayers of every Fijian are with the people of Vanuatu at this time of great crisis.
I assured him of Fiji’s full support as his Government deals with the aftermath of Cyclone Pam and the challenge of rebuilding Vanuatu. I’m sure that every member of this House joins me in saying to the people of Vanuatu that Fiji will stand by you in this most critical of times.
Our friendship as Melanesian brothers and sisters has never been stronger. And the people of Vanuatu can rest assured that the Government and people of Fiji stand with them in solidarity in their hour of need. And we will do everything in our power to assist them in the recovery effort.
As Prime Minister, I will be consulting my Vanuatu counterpart on how we can best assist and we will obviously be making further announcements on this assistance as time goes by.
I am confident that I have the support of every person in this Parliament in offering the people of Vanuatu whatever we can to help alleviate their suffering. Because every Fijian knows that it was only a stroke of fate that prevented us from also being directly in the Cyclone’s path.
I also want to thank the nation and especially our emergency services, the police, DISMAC, the military, the Tourism Response Team and our meteorologists for their wonderful response to the threat to Fiji posed by Cyclone Pam.
We are determined never to be complacent in the face of the terrible danger posed by these forces of nature over which we have no control.
We learnt from Cyclone Evan that making the maximum preparations is the only way to spare our nation from the worst effects of these events. And I am extremely proud that once again Fiji, and its people, responded so well.
We have set a benchmark for an appropriate response to every national emergency and every Fijian can be assured that their personal safety is the Government’s prime objective at all times.
We need to be ever vigilant, as the tragic event in the seas off Vatuwaqa at the weekend shows. The confirmed death of one teenager and the fact that three others are missing, believed drowned, is a terrible blow for these young people’s families and the entire nation.
I am especially upset by this event because it was only on Friday that I highlighted the threat of drowning when I launched the Water Safety Council’s Report for 2014.
We must do everything possible as a community to try to avert these tragedies by giving young people the swimming skills they need and appropriate information about dangerous currents to reduce the risk of drowning.
In the meantime, I send the condolences of all members of this House to the families of those who have been lost. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, just as they are with the people of Vanuatu.
I now want to outline why Fiji is intent on ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which as you all know has been before the relevant Parliamentary committee for scrutiny.
I was very gratified that in the hearings before this Committee, the Fiji Military Forces and the Fiji Police both publicly committed themselves to the implementation of UNCAT.
They have displayed a positive attitude that has been noticeably absent on the part of the Opposition, which continues to want to play politics with matters of national importance instead of acting in a constructive and cooperative manner.
Some of the things that have been said in this House this morning demonstrate, yet again, the carping negativity of the Opposition. While we lead from the front across the broad spectrum of national life, all they can do is snipe from the sidelines.
We govern. They moan. We serve the nation. They serve themselves and their narrow agendas. We look to a brighter future for every Fijian. They are always looking backwards, seemingly still unable to come to terms with the fact that the Fijian people rejected them last September.
The Fijian Constitution already says 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.
This provision in our supreme law provides Fijians with a level of protection from torture and abuse that is unprecedented in Fiji’s history and is superior to that afforded by a great many countries.
But we are determined as a Government to not only adhere to the highest standards of justice, fairness, transparency and accountability in our own laws but also subscribe to the highest international codes of behavior embodied in the United Nations conventions.
Our decision to formally ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture sends an important message to the international community.
It tells the world that we are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with those nations who oppose any use of torture or cruelty as instruments of state policy.
It tells the world that for Fijians, torture is unacceptable under any circumstances. And we are siding with those nations who are intent on upholding the human rights of their own citizens and the citizens of every country.
Fiji is determined to fight torture and cruelty in all its forms. And to affirm human dignity, fairness, justice and the rule of law as our core values as a nation.
As I said earlier, Section 11 of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution already protects all persons in Fiji from torture, cruel and inhumane treatment and punishment and disproportionately severe punishment.
It protects every Fijian from all forms of physical, mental and emotional harm.
This definition of “harm” goes even further than the UNCAT definition of torture. So Section 11 of our Constitution arguably provides one of the strongest domestic protections against torture in the world. It extends to specific protection at home, at school and at work.
So Madam Speaker,
Fijians already have the strongest Constitutional protections against torture. But by ratifying UNCAT, Fiji goes a step further by strengthening its opposition to torture in the global community generally.
It strengthens its position in all the human rights agencies of the United Nations. And it sends a message to all countries – most of which are already parties to UNCAT -that Fiji is serious about protecting individual rights and freedoms.
It defines us as one of the nations upholding the highest standards of behavior towards its citizens. It places us in the frontline of opposition to torture.
And it tells the world that we are serious about protecting the human rights of every Fijian. Which is why I commend the ratification bill to this House and urge you all to support it.
As well as a statement of good global citizenship, the ratification of UNCAT also opens up the possibility of a lot more international assistance for Fiji to maintain the highest standards of behaviour in the treatment of those who come before the law and especially those who are detained as criminal suspects.
We intend to train our Police officers, prison officers and members of the judiciary on international best practice for the interrogation of suspects and the incarceration of prisoners.
There are a number of countries that are already willing to engage with us on training and assistance on the implementation of the Convention. And we look forward to receiving their help as we strive for world’s best practice in this area.
Once UNCAT is ratified, we will update the training manuals of the Police and prison service to incorporate best practice into the day-to-day protocols on which our law enforcement agencies operate.
Our commitment to ratify UNCAT is an important step for Fiji.
As I have outlined, it underlines the unprecedented protections that already exist in our Constitution. It places us in the ranks of those countries at the forefront of the fight for human rights and against those who practice cruel and inhumane measures against their citizens.
And it is a cornerstone of Fiji’s determination across a broad front to reform and modernize its laws and ratify relevant international conventions on our continuing march to becoming a modern nation-state.
As has been highlighted in the motion before the House there are some exceptions that are necessary in the ratification of UNCAT, given the competencies that exist in Fiji and the fact that there will be further specialization in this very important area of human rights.
Madam speaker I commend this initiative to the House as a measure of great importance to reinforce the existing protections of every Fijian now and in the years to come.
Vinaka vakalevu, thank you.