19 Jul 2019

Mixed views as Fiji human rights institute launched

2:59 pm on 19 July 2019

Human rights are in the spotlight in Fiji with the launch of a new research institute and the impending review by the United Nations.

The Pacific-wide Institute of Human Rights Research was launched yesterday in Suva.

It comes in the wake of Fiji being appointed to the UN's human rights council and as its human rights record is due to come under UN scrutiny later this year.

Artwork at the Fiji Women's Rights Movement's headquarters in Suva, Fiji

Artwork at the Fiji Women's Rights Movement's headquarters in Suva, Fiji Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

The institute will be backed by the University of Fiji, the United Nations and the Pacific Islands Development Forum.

The Regional Representative from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chitralekha Massey, said she hopes it will fill a gap in the Pacific.

Dr Massey said a safe space for challenging discussion is sorely needed.

"A place where you have a think tank for government, for security services, for regional organisations and everybody working in fields related to human rights.

"And at the same time we found that it is actually a big gap because there doesn't exist one; a safe space where people come together, will talk, challenge each other. And in that way ensure that we are keeping up with the emerging challenges."

The Dean of the university's law school Professor Shaista Shameem said the institute has set priorities.

"The partners have agreed that the institute will aim to increase knowledge, scholarly knowledge, and you know research on specific issues. The priorities are climate change and migration, we've also decided to concentrate on disabilities as well as mental health.

"Obviously the Sustainable Development Goals they are an issue for the Pacific as well. Democracy and good governance, and also we've expanded that to business and the environment."

Human Rights MoU singing in Fiji

Human Rights MoU singing in Fiji Photo: University of Fiji

She said the research will be in depth, focussed on thorny problems and not just for academic journals that nobody reads.

"It's not like being in an ivory tower. Whatever, we do has impact on the rest of society. That's what good academia is all about. We're hoping anyway is that people will look at the research institute and say, 'oh the work that they're doing is what we need in order to be able to provide advocacy in the region, or support a court case in the region, even influence government policy and make submissions to parliament, various parliaments."

Dr Massey said the institute is in its early stages but will provide education, dialogue, and debate for practitioners such as police.

"For example, if you have people coming in from Police and Corrections, the discourse is around the use of force. The discourse is around compliance with international standards on prevention of torture.

"And this is where I see a practical outcome where you will be working together with policy makers saying 'Okay this is what your policy should look like'."

However, the Director of the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre, Shamima Ali, is sceptical.

She said there was no consultation with civil society or those on the front lines, and she was not invited to the launch.

Ms Ali said some people involved have brought shame to human rights in Fiji but others do add some credibility.

"We'll just wait and watch for this one. And see what happens. So is it just a show. Because globally for human rights the space is shrinking. And it's good to have things like this. But as long as you know it's not a toothless tiger.

"Which normally is the way things are going as far as human rights are concerned in this country. But you know something good might come to it."

Fiji Women's Crisis Centre Co-ordinator, Shamima Ali.

Fiji Women's Crisis Centre Co-ordinator, Shamima Ali. Photo: Supplied

Shamima Ali said if there is any way they can contribute or are asked to help the institute they would and in the end these agencies all want to improve people's lives.

Meanwhile, the head of Amnesty International in Fiji said a new human rights thinktank for Pacific researchers is a promising step forward.

Roshika Deo who was at the recent launch of the Institute of Human Rights Research, said only time will tell how much of a practical difference the move will make, but she feels the move is a positive one.

"It's an authentic approach, it's a genuine effort, it's something new in the region, something needed, very much needed in the region.

"Given the kind of partnership that is present, it definately is something that can make very important in roads in improving the status of human rights issues in the region. And to overall strengthening and improving the human rights status."

Roshika Deo said the institute will be accessible to academics from around the Pacific to do important development work.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International said Fiji's appointment to the vice-presidency of the UN Human Rights Council offers the nation a chance to increase its credibilty and redress critical failures.

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