Apr 11, 2021 Last Updated 4:12 AM, Apr 8, 2021

A new human rights report released as Fiji's Nazhat Shameem Khan takes the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council has noted concern over some Pacific Island governments' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Human Rights Situational Analysis released by the UN Human Rights Office for the High Commissioner (UNHCR) and the Pacific Community (SPC) observed that 13 Pacific Island countries declared states of emergency in the early months of the pandemic, and notes concerns raised over harsh penalties for curfew infringements and restrictions on freedom of information and expression. It also notes allegations that major constitutional changes are being rushed through under the cover of a state of emergency without due process.

It says that measures taken by Pacific Island Countries in the ongoing COVID-19 response and recovery efforts should be aligned with international legal standards relating to special measures to avoid violating the rights of people i and to ensure the foundations essential for sustainable development are guaranteed.

At a domestic level, civil society organisations in countries such as Fiji have raised concerns over  the ongoing impact of these restrictions, and their potential continuance beyond the pandemic.

Those organisations have reported increased calls to helplines and demand for domestic violence support services during the pandemic in Samoa and Fiji. The report states that further lockdowns, increased financial pressures and growing food insecurity could all increase this risk, and that this has been compounded by formal and informal support services becoming less reliable due to the reallocation of resources and reduced capacity of Civil Society Organisations.

The SPC/UNHCR report describes the mental health consequences of the pandemic for many marginalised groups as a “ticking time bomb,” citing the case of Guam, where it is estimated that there was a suicide every six days between June and August in 2020, around three times higher than the global average. The region “does not have the counselling competency and capacity to deal with widespread mental health issues” the report states.

This is a concern echoed by many working in national social services sectors, but which has not yet been comprehensively addressed by governments and development partners.

Meanwhile Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan's election to the Presidency as the first Pacific Islander to hold this position, has been welcomed by the NGO Coalition on Human Rights in Fiji as a "step in the right direction" .

"As the president of the UNHCR, Fiji now faces global scrutiny on our human rights obligations. This is a welcome opportunity for Fiji to reflect on our progress and the existing human rights concerns that need to be addressed," said the NGOCHR Chair Nalini Singh.

"With Fiji's new appointment, our government must act to ensure that human rights and the principles of equality and justice are upheld across all sectors," said Singh.

The NGOCHR has consistently raised concerns over alleged police brutality in Fiji, and says human rights shoud not be rolled back under the guise of COVID response measures. 

Ambassador Khan presided over her first session of the Human Rights Council last week, with the commencement of the 37th Session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) with the review of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).

 

“My voice does matter, someone will listen, we can make a change whether to write poems or not.  What you do matters.”

That was the message of Tongan student,  Anna Jane Vea, at the launch of a book of poetry ‘Rising Tide’ in Suva recently.

The Pacific Partnership to End Violence Against Women Programme launched the human rights and social justice themed poetry anthology for secondary school students. The Partnership aims to integrate human rights studies into community and school discussions.

Speaking during the launch of the ‘Rising Tide’, the Head of Political, Trade and Information at the Delegation of the European Union for the Pacific, Galia Agisheva underlined the significance of the publication in terms of promoting discussion of ‘sensitive’ in the region such as women and girls’ rights and LGBTQ rights.

“This collection of the Pacific poems, will undoubtedly generate inspiration for the young generation for which it is aimed,” she said.  “This young generation is the rising tide of the Pacific, can become agents of change of attitudes, in their lives, in their communities, in their countries, and also globally.”

The University of the South Pacific’s Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia commended the initiative, and explained that its recognition of Pacific poets and creative arts is parallel to USP’s objectives.   

“This is something the University has committed to, not just through the Oceania Centre but also through the School of Languages, Arts and Media Pacific Writing Forum,” he said.

Reading her poem, ‘Sorry’ during the launch, Anna Jane Vea, shared her gratitude for being included in the publication and denoted poetry as a powerful medium to connect different people.

Copies of ‘Rising Tide’ were handed over to nine secondary school students during the launch and VCP Professor Ahluwalia stated that copies of book would be made available at the USP Book Centre soon.

This month’s visit to Fiji by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, is another chapter in the Pacific’s long history with the Commonwealth. This association of 53 independent and equal sovereign states, has brought many benefits to the region ranging from human rights and climate change related development projects, scholarships to UK-based Universities and funding for programming through multilateral organisations.

One of the more recent investments to the region comes through the Pacific Commonwealth Equality Project. The project aims to help improve the capacity of Pacific Commonwealth countries to drive inclusive and equitable social change, through good governance, respect for human rights, and fairer opportunities for politically, socially and economically marginalised communities.

The UK Government has provided a grant to the Pacific Community’s Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT) of £1.8 million (approximately US$2.36 million) to support a variety of projects over the next two years

Melanie Hopkins, British High Commissioner and Head of the South Pacific Network says the UK Government is putting into action the obligations it has made towards meeting the needs and desires of Pacific Commonwealth countries and anticipates a richness of cross-Pacific and cross-Commonwealth learning and exchange taking place over the next two years.

The High Commissioner believes...

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By Netani Rika

THE public has a right to know why commissioners have not been appointed to oversee the Fiji Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights

Commission, says National Federation Party Leader, Dr Biman Prasad.

Speaking on World Albinism Day, Prasad said the Constitutional Offices Commission had made no appointments five weeks after the term of the last commissioners ended.

“Human rights standards apply to us all regardless of our external appearances,” Prasad said.

“Fiji received the UN Special Rapporteur on Albinism only last December and yet, a month after the contracts of the previous commission expired, the government does not see fit to appoint a new commission with the urgency that such appointments are required.

“This is a clear sign that human rights standards that are set by the oversight Commission, and certainly not the Director, are merely talking points and not a genuine priority of this government.”

Prasad said the need for independence and impartiality of the Fiji Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Commission was highlighted last year by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mutuma Ruteere.

“Unless there is rapid movement on the appointment of a new Commission, all taxpayers are entitled to question how their taxes are being poured in the Fiji Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Commission.

The Fiji Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Commission is headed by Ashwin Raj who also heads the Media Industry Development Authority.

The Pacific and Central Asia share a peculiar similarity. They are the only locations not covered by a regional human rights mechanism, such as a human rights commission or court.A call for increased regional engagement on human rights has been rising from within the Pacific region, including the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders. In part, this is a response to the Pacific region having the lowest ratification rate of international human rights treaties. Somewhat understandable, given the obvious barriers faced by small islands states, including limited capacity and resources to implement treaty conditions and the ongoing burden of treaty reporting. The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders, through the Pacific Plan, have committed Forum Islands states to working together to ratify and implement international human rights conventions and meet reporting requirements. They have agreed to explore possible means for pooling resources and integrating legal institutions and legislative services. To this end, a working group has been mandated by the Forum Regional Security Council to investigate a possible regional human rights mechanism in the Pacific. In November, the Forum Secretariat, in partnership with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community......

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