Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Rule of law in Fiji in dire straits

LONDON: In a report published today, Dire Straits: A report on the rule of law in Fiji, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) expresses concern over the state of the rule of law in that nation, which has steadily deteriorated since the December 2006 coup. The IBAHRI report highlights concerns about the interim military regime’s efforts to influence the judiciary, the legal profession and the media in Fiji. (Please click here to download the Report.)

The report is published following two separate attempts by a high-level IBAHRI-led delegation of senior jurists from Australia and Malaysia to visit Fiji subsequent to reports of threats to judicial independence and violent attacks on some lawyers. As the Fijian interim regime barred the delegation from entering Fiji, the investigation into the state of the rule of law was conducted via teleconference with a range of stakeholders based in Fiji and overseas. The delegation comprised:

• The Hon Justice Roslyn Atkinson, Supreme Court of Queensland, Australia;
• Mr Roger Tan, Advocate and Solicitor, Malaysia;
• Dr Loretta de Plevitz, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, Australia;
• Ms Felicia Johnston, IBAHRI Programme Lawyer, United Kingdom; and
• Mr Daniel Woods, Rapporteur 

Of particular alarm is the case of Chief Justice Fatiaki who in January 2007, was removed from his office by representatives of the current interim regime and forced to take leave under duress. Subsequently charged with a range of misconduct offences, including allegations that he supported the 2000 coup, he was subjected to a delayed disciplinary process which was eventually dissolved as part of a ‘settlement’ between him and the regime in December 2008. At the same time he received a large payment from the interim regime and resigned from the position of Chief Justice.

If the allegations made against Chief Justice Fatiaki were true, then they warranted investigation and consideration by an independent tribunal. Alternatively, if the allegations were false, the interim regime's suspension of the Chief Justice was entirely without foundation, constituting a serious and unwarranted violation of the independence of the judiciary. There is no conclusion that can be drawn from the resolution of the suspension of the Chief Justice that does not have serious negative implications for the rule of law in Fiji.

Another concern is the conduct of judges who have been appointed or promoted following the December 2006 coup and who have heard cases that relate to the constitutionality of their own appointments. This breaches the law of recusal, which prohibits judges from presiding over a matter in which he or she holds an interest.

The 118 page report contains 31 recommendations (pages 93-97) which the IBAHRI calls on the interim regime and/or other relevant bodies to implement as a matter of urgency to restore the rule of law in Fiji.

Included in the recommendations are the following:

• That elections are held at the earliest opportunity in order to restore democracy to Fiji and legitimacy to all government actions.

• That the interim regime refrains from any interference with the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession.

• That the interim regime respects the independence of the legal profession in Fiji, and refrains from making inappropriate criticisms of the legal profession or individual lawyers.

• That the interim regime be transparent and accountable, and refrains from inhibiting access to Fiji of independent international delegations such as the IBAHRI delegation and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

• That all members of Fiji’s judiciary work together to overcome personal conflict and restore collegiality across the judiciary.

• That the Fiji Human Rights Commission acts independently and in compliance with its powers and mandates under the Fiji Constitution and law.

• That the interim government desists from using contempt or deportation proceedings to attempt to control information provided to the community by the media.

Justice Richard Goldstone, Co-Chair of the IBAHRI Council, stated: ‘This independent and impartial review reveals the extensive deterioration in the rule of law in Fiji. It is evident that measures implemented by the interim regime have negatively impacted on the judiciary, the legal profession, the Human Rights Commission and the media. Steps should be taken to restore democracy and a robust rule of law in Fiji.’

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