11 Jan 2012

New regime decree raises concern in Fiji and abroad

6:35 pm on 11 January 2012

New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully has sounded a cautious note over the Fiji regime's new public order rules.

The measures extend the regime's powers to maintain security including allowing police to use force to break up meetings.

While international organisations and governments are still trying to understand the changes, criticism is mounting from within the country, as Sally Round reports.


No sooner had Fiji's public emergency regulations been lifted on Saturday then a new decree was announced aimed at maintaining public order as Fiji heads towards promised elections in 2014.

Fiji trade union leader Felix Anthony says the decree has taken Fiji a huge step backwards and the country is now a police state with extended powers for the Commissioner of Police.

"I think he has taken the role of the judiciary in many instances where he has the powers now to stop anyone leaving the country or stop anyone moving around freely within Fiji, also to stop any meetings at will."

Felix Anthony fears just airing views or campaigning might be interpreted as terrorism.

The definition is very wide. It's basically left to someone in authority to interpret what that would mean. That in itself is a violation of human rights and if we were to strictly comply with the decree then there really wouldn't be any freedom of speech in this country.

The interim government says the decree just modernises an Act which has been in force since 1970 and is aimed at preventing unrest of the kind seen in 2000 which led to the coup that ousted former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

It says it doesn't go as far as such legal safeguards in other countries.

Mr Chaudhry is the leader of the Labour Party and he says the measures are highly repressive and worse than the Public Emergency Regulations they replaced.

He says it's meaningless for those in power to compare the Act with that in other countries.

They forget that these countries have a functioning democracy. They have a parliament. They have a free media. In Fiji all this is not possible. We don't have a parliament. And therefore nobody's accountable for their actions etc and the military itself.

A Fiji watchdog The Citizens Constitutional Forum says the new decree is nonsense as there is no space for debate, given the continued requirement to obtain permits for meetings.

The forum's CEO, the Reverend Akuila Yabaki, says last week's lifting of emergency rules raised expectations that people would be able to talk fearlessly about a new constitution..

Keeping wide-ranging powers in the hands of individual police officers could lead to abuse as well against targetted individuals and groups, and that should be reconsidered.

Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully, has expressed disappointment over the decree just as Public Emergency Regulations were lifted.

The jury is out on quite what this new set of rules are going to mean. It will come down to some extent to how precisely the regime intend to use them, and I hope they understand that this is a time when the international community is looking for positive signs.

Meanwhile the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Pacific region is still analysing the provisions.

Its representative Matilda Bogner says she is concerned at the broad discretion given to the police and the prime minister and the lack of defined criteria over public and private meetings.

We're also concerned around the use of force that the amendment brings in. It allows the police to use force to disperse meetings and it doesn't appear to comply with international human rights standards by placing necessary limits on that use of force.

Ms Bogner says they'll be watching closely to see how the changes are put into use.