The issue of human rights, freedom and democracy and the abuse of individual rights has been the core of discussions and courts cases since the turn of the century as a result of circumstances which saw upheavals in government leadership and changes in political power.
It has reached a point where organisations deemed to be upholding and fighting for the protection of basic human rights of citizens have been questioned for their integrity and whether they were upholding the rights of Fiji citizens. Senior reporter ROBERT MATAU talks to human rights advocate Premila Devi, about a project she heads on educating the masses about their rights and freedom of expression and movement as enshrined under the Constitution.
TIMES: MADAM, could you briefly explain about the Human Rights and Values Project you are the chairperson of?
DEVI: THE Human Rights and Values Project is a part of the USP Lautoka campus' continuing and community education program.
It aims to create awareness among high school students in the Western Division of the basic human rights of an individual and the cultural, traditional and moral values that characterise the two major ethnic groups (Fijians and Indians) in Fiji. We organise written competition, research projects, quiz and debates on human rights and values for high school students to not only test their understanding of human rights and culture of the major ethnic groups but also to create awareness and understanding of the topic among the students.
TIMES: WHY was it established and does the project only concentrate on the education of school children on human rights?
DEVI: THE project was established in 2004 in light of the National Unity and Reconciliation campaign by the government of the day. It was realised that reconciliation is not something that can be achieved overnight. It should involve ongoing education at all levels. It just cannot be a top-down policy supported by a couple of meetings and celebrations. We decided that as part of our continuing and community outreach, you make our contribution toward national unity and reconciliation by at least educating the youth who are in high school. Yes, this particular project only focuses on high school students in the West. It is our contribution toward reconciliation, peace-building and multiculturalism in Fiji.
TIMES: DO you think citizens of Fiji are fully aware of the issue of human rights and do you think our governments have done enough to create awareness?
DEVI: I DO not think citizens of Fiji are fully aware of the issues of human rights. Obviously, our governments have not done enough to educate the public. We do not have a culture of independent and critical thinking.
We are very much under the influence of two dominant entities (politics and religion) in our country. I believe that politics and religion are the major mind setters. I also believe the mass media has not done enough to help the governments.
TIMES: DO you think the rights of people in Fiji are adequately protected?
DEVI: YES, the Constitution guarantees adequate protection but how many people know what their human rights are and how can they assert those rights?
Having adequate protection and law on paper serves no purpose if people do not fully understand the laws and/or are not empowered enough to assert their rights.
TIMES: WHAT are some areas you see human rights have been compromised?
DEVI: FREEDOM of expression and freedom of reporting.
TIMES: SINCE the interim regime assumed power, they have been promising to uphold the Constitution and human rights. Do you think they have fulfilled their promise so far and why?
DEVI: THE legal cases challenging the interim regime will be a good judge of whether the promise has been upheld.
TIMES: MADAM, what is you opinion of the work being done by the Fiji Human Rights Commission? Do you think it has been just in protecting the rights of Fiji citizens?
DEVI: THE rights of Fiji citizens are protected in the Constitution. The Fiji Human Rights Commission, to my understanding, is there to educate the public of their rights, provide recommendations to the government on related issues and take up human rights violation and abuse cases based on complaints from the public. I do not think it has done enough in terms of educating the public but its very existence provides people a voice in case of human rights violation. But again, we should not forget that the political climate of a country has direct influence over any organisation, whether the political framework is democratic or non-democratic, it is bound to have an impact on individuals and organisations. But how can we measure whether organisations such as the FHRC are exercising self censor such as the mass media?
TIMES: WHAT are some measures you think should be put in place in order to improve the issue of human rights in Fiji?
DEVI: EDUCATION at all levels. These issues should be part of the formal education at all levels and non-formal education at community level. All sectors including the government, non-government and private, should be involved. The government can initiate a national compact including all sectors and the mass media to work on educating the public on human rights and any issue.
I strongly believe the mass media has the potential to play a key and leading role in educating the public not only on issues of human rights but on any issue affecting us and our country.
By providing information, the media has the potential to create a 'state of mind' and empower the public and decision makers.
TIMES: HOW important is the protection of human rights in Fiji, or for any government, with regards to international acceptance and recognition?
DEVI: THE protection of human rights is crucial and very basic for any government. It reflects good governance and transparency, which is very important in terms of international acceptance and recognition.