Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Fiji and human rights, the limits of influence

Why was a violator elected to a body responsible for protecting human rights?

Human Rights Council 39th Session, in September (Photo: UN Geneva/Flickr)
Human Rights Council 39th Session, in September (Photo: UN Geneva/Flickr)
Published 16 Oct 2018 

Fiji, the country with perhaps the worst human rights record in the Pacific, has just been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The event unfortunately coincided with the death of 26-year-old Josua Lalauvaki, who had been allegedly beaten by police in Suva last month.

As is customary, police have announced there will be an investigation into the incident. There are many “investigations” into assaults by the security forces, some of which ended in death, which are still officially ongoing months and even years later. Nothing ever seems to happen.

The Fiji government, which is about to face elections later this year, is crowing about their great diplomatic triumph in getting onto the UN Human Rights Council, as if it somehow gives them some sort of “get out of jail free” card on their human rights record.

It doesn’t.

If anything, it simply underlines the corruption of the United Nations system in general, and the Human Rights Council in particular.

Some of the worst human rights abusers on the planet were elected on Friday, some with even worse track records than Fiji. Bahrain, Cameroon, the Philippines, Somalia, Bangladesh, and Eritrea are now on the Council and are entitled to investigate other nations.

Maybe (and perhaps it’s a bit of a gamble) having Fiji on the Human Rights Council could encourage them to improve their human rights track record?

It wasn’t even a competition – the UN functions along a bloc vote system, and all five voting regions only put up the same number of candidates as there were seats available. All nominated nations were guaranteed a place.

Louis Charbonneau the UN director for Human Rights Watch, called the vote “ridiculous” and said that it “makes mockery of the word ‘election.’”

There are sometimes attempts to blame Australia and New Zealand in some way for human rights abuses in Fiji because both countries are perceived to have in some way given up on promoting democratic governance in the country.

It’s an example where the head and the heart get into conflict.

There have been instances of police brutality, deaths in custody, intimidation of the media, censorship, and allegations of interference in the judiciary. These have been documented in reports by Amnesty International and by local human rights NGOs over the years.

But what should be done about it?

Australia and New Zealand held the line against the coup installed military regime for eight years until they eventually “caved in” or “saw sense” depending on which side of the argument you were on, and decided to try rapprochement instead.

The argument was made at the time that smart sanctions and opposing a regime installed by force wasn’t working. Which had a lot of truth to it. At some point the decision was made that opposing what had happened would not do anything to change the situation for the better, so perhaps pretending things were fine might eventually result in a gradual improvement.

Whether that’s happened or not remains an open question.

Foreign policy realism seeks the greatest good for the greatest number in the most effective way, and if that means ignoring Fiji’s human rights record temporarily so that the country can gradually evolve towards something better, that’s a price that needs to be paid.

Maybe (and perhaps it’s a bit of a gamble) having Fiji on the Human Rights Council could encourage them to improve their human rights track record?

Attempting some sort of grand quick fix through external pressure would be far more likely to makes things a lot worse. That’s an unpleasant thing for those in Fiji who are struggling against human rights abuses to hear.

It may appear hypocritical for two powerful nations in the Pacific not to act vigorously against human rights abuses in a third, but in this case it’s true that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

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