Every year over 400,000 tourists flock to the pristine islands of Fiji, its celestial exterior barely revealing a turbulent political past. Fiji has been without an elected government since Rear Admiral Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a December 2006 military coup.
That coup was the fourth the country had seen in less than two decades — a considerable detour en route to democracy.
On 5 March this year, Bainimarama upheld his promise to step down as military commander, signifying that he will run for upcoming elections as a civilian. He will stand with the newly formed Fiji First Party.
Reacting to the news of Bainimarama's resignation from the military, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop welcomed Fiji's return to parliamentary democracy and 'a series of positive developments in Fiji's election preparations', acknowledging 'the significant progress made by Fiji toward elections'.
The Australian Government lifted all travel restrictions on Fiji, in place since December 2006, 'in line with the Australian Government's policy of re-engagement and normalisation of bilateral relations with Fiji'.
With upcoming elections, the international community has been quick to praise Fiji's 'progress'. But the country's dismal rights record suggests treading with caution. Bainimarama's government pays lip service to democratic ideals while contining to commit serious human rights violations. This should not be considered sufficient reason for Australia and New Zealand, which have historically led efforts to diplomatically isolate Fiji, to start anew and whitewash Bainimarama's reign of abuse.
Bainimarama has long claimed that military rule was necessary to ensure a restoration of democracy and the curtailing of corruption, and he has used this argument to justify a number of legislative and policy practices applying onerous restrictions on basic human rights. In his resignation he pledged to establish a 'better Fiji'. But whether that happens remains to be seen.
Free and fair elections are not determined by what happens on a single day, or from a single event. The lead-up to an election is a significant determining factor in gauging its integrity. In this regard, there were significant delays in forming an Electoral Commission in Fiji, which was only announced early this year. The Electoral Decree was released on 28 March and civil society groups and NGOs have noted their concern, alleging it will restrict NGOs from campaigning and make it difficult for independent candidates to run.
More broadly, the Government has a history of arbitrarily arresting and detaining human rights defenders, trade union leaders, journalists, and others perceived to be critical of the Government. The arrests, and restrictions on the fundamental rights of free speech, association, and assembly, are still happening.
The assurance of free elections and a return to democracy ring hollow when basic rights are still being restricted.
In September last year a group of 30 people were partaking in peaceful public protest ahead of the adoption of the new constitution. The police arrested 14 from the group for gathering without a permit. More recently in November 2013, another 14 protesters, wearing t-shirts calling on the government to make its budget public, were arrested. They were lunching near the Fiji Revenue Authority building at the time of arrest.
These are only a few of the incidents of arbitrary arrests and intimidation by the military-backed government in recent months. If the Government of Fiji continues to restrict civil society from making critical comments and taking an active role in the political process, any attempted transition into a democracy in which rights are respected is essentially meaningless.
The constitution promulgated in September last year held significant restrictions that include broad provisions allowing the government to interfere with key rights of expression, assembly, and association over any perceived challenge to 'national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, or the orderly conduct of elections'. The reference to elections is particularly troubling given the government's track record of repression.
Earlier in 2013, Bainimarama decided to scrap a previous draft of the constitution developed by noted constitutional and human rights lawyer Professor Yash Ghai, and instead handed duties to draw up a new constitution to government legal officers in the attorney general's chambers. Here again, he exercised absolute control in determining Fiji's political path.
As Fiji moves toward elections, Australia and other key governments with an abiding interest in Fiji should press its government to cease the harassment and arbitrary detention of its people and to make a firm commitment to end unlawful interference with civil society and peaceful dissent.