New Impulses in the Interaction of Law and Religion: The Fiji Human Rights Commission in Context

By Shameem, Shaista | Brigham Young University Law Review, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

New Impulses in the Interaction of Law and Religion: The Fiji Human Rights Commission in Context


Shameem, Shaista, Brigham Young University Law Review


I. BACKGROUND

The Fiji Islands are located in the middle of the South Pacific, close to New Zealand and Australia. Numbering three hundred islands, the country is blessed with a mild, tropical climate and a combination of both high and low islands. The population of Fiji is approximately 775,000, with fifty-one percent indigenous Fijians and the rest being a combination of Indo-Fijians, Chinese, European, Pacific Islanders, and others.1 The Indo-Fijians are the largest ethnic group other than the indigenous Fijians and constitute nearly forty-five percent of the population.2 The Fijians are mostly of the Christian faith, whereas the majority of Indo-Fijians belong to other faiths, such as Hinduism and Islam. The country has a multi-ethnic and multi-religious persona developed over the past two hundred years of physical coexistence.3

While the majority of Fiji's people would like Fiji to be known and admired for its beautiful beaches, stunning mountain ranges, pristine reefs, and tropical forests, in reality, we are better known for the coups that took place in 1987 and 2000. The coups overthrew elected governments on the basis of indigenous rights. In both cases Christianity was an important ideological aspect of the upheavals.4

Since the first coup in 1987, a disturbing trend has begun to emerge in Fiji. A number of holy places of the Hindus, such as temples and other places of worship, have been damaged, destroyed, or desecrated by unknown vandals who, in most cases, have not been caught by the police.5 The Fiji Human Rights Commission is aware of these disquieting events and the call in 2002 by some indigenous political and religious opinion-shapers that Fiji should be declared a Christian state.

The Commission has played an important role in reaction to these complaints and has reminded people of the importance of religious freedom to the country, as evidenced both at home, through the 1997 Constitution of the Republic of the Fiji Islands, and abroad, through international human rights instruments to which Fiji is a party. Fiji is a member of the United Nations but unfortunately is not a signatory to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights6 or to the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.7 It is, however, a signatory to the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.8 This essay first introduces the instruments protecting religious freedom in Fiji and then explains the Fiji Human Rights Commission's role in protecting this important right.

II. "NEW IMPULSES" IN THE INTERACTION OF RELIGION AND LAW IN FIJI: THE 1997 CONSTITUTION

Freedom of religion and conscience has always been constitutionally protected in Fiji since the country gained independence in 1970. Fiji's multi-cultural and multi-religious composition creates an environment where religious freedom is generally favored. People are certainly permitted to observe their religious practices, and important religious festivals are marked as national holidays. For example, Prophet Mohammed's Birthday is a national holiday, as is Diwali, the festival of lights of the Hindus. Everyone in Fiji looks forward to the annual Diwali holiday when people of the Hindu faith invite their friends for sweets and the lighting of the "diya," or candles. Religious freedom is expressed in the constitution, and notwithstanding contrary proposals that Fiji become a Christian state, religious freedom is likely to be protected as one of the fundamental human rights of the country.

Fiji's 1990 Constitution "provided that the Constitution was to be reviewed before the end of seven years after its promulgation."9 In 1995, Sir Paul Reeves of New Zealand, Tomasi Vakatora of Fiji, and Brij Lal of the Australian National University were appointed to the Constitutional Review Commission.10 The Commission, later known as the Reeves Commission, gathered "694 recommendations for constitutional reform" from public hearings, debate among politicians, and expert research. …

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