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Democracy and poverty critical issues in Pacific region

Democracy critical to Pacific region, but poverty needs addressing – Nigel Hampton QC

October 4, 2012

Tonga’s former Chief Justice Nigel Hampton QC believes democracy and the rule of law are pivotal to the Pacific, but related issues of poverty also need addressing.

He made the comments today as the University of Canterbury's Pacific conference on democracy approaches.

Major General Sitiveni Rabuka, who led two military coups in Fiji, will be one of the key speakers at Pacific conference at University of Canterbury (UC) campus on October 18 and 19.

Rabuka, who went on to become the country's elected prime minister, is one of a many Pacific leaders who will be attending the conference. Fiji has committed to democratic elections in 2014.

Other speakers will include Sir Don McKinnon, Deputy Tongan Prime Minister Sam Viapulu, Foreign Minister Murray McCully, Samoan Justice Minister Fiame Mataafa and Hampton.

Many islanders are unable to feed their families adequately, and the number of undernourished people is increasing. Throughout the region poverty remains largely a rural phenomenon and is often directly linked to low agricultural productivity.

Until recently, poverty was not regarded as a significant problem in Pacific Island nations, but more

than half of New Zealand's overall annual foreign aid ($525 million in 2010-2011) goes to the Pacific islands. Hampton said Pacific poverty was a bigger issue than many realised.

``Step out of the Denerau resorts in Fiji, just a short distance into Nadi town, and you're into third world conditions,’’ he said today.

``Resorts with first world living standards, charging first world fees with profits going offshore to first world proprietors and management in first world persons' hands at first world wages; but with locals in service in resorts being paid third world wages.

``In Nuku’alofa in Tonga, people are squatting in swamps and former rubbish tips, having come from outer islands in order to try and educate their children.’’

``Many Pacific development and foreign government aid programmes do not benefit the people. As with tourism, so is the case with fishing. Fishing rights are given to states such as Japan, Korea and China in return for, and as a condition implicitly, if not explicitly for, aid. Aid comes, ironically, with `fish-hooks’.’’

Hampton said that strictures upon freedom of the press, upon freedom of expression, upon freedom to gather together peaceably are concerning human rights issues in a number of Pacific states, associated, too often, with either an inability or a failure of the legal system, the courts, to protect freedoms adequately. In some cases, as notably in Fiji, there was no freedom to exercise rights to vote.

``There are failures to properly curtail abuses of power by states, by organs of the state and by people holding state offices, with the incidence of corruption, cronyism and nepotism of concern. There are issues of abuse of police powers – as in Tonga. Would New Zealanders have known of endemic violence, a culture of violence, exercised by Tongan police if it had not been for the death of a NZ police officer there?

``Democracy is still a fragile flower in a number of post-colonial states, Fiji being, perhaps, the prime example. But it is not alone - look at the Solomons, recent events in PNG, Timor Leste, Bougainville and so on; and the ongoing issues in the French Polynesian colonies.

``And there are real concerns as to whether promised elections in Fiji will be transparent, free and fair. How unconstrained will campaigning be? Will all persons / parties standing be allowed full and equal access to media? Will the present `interim’ government interfere? Connected to that, scrutiny must be given to the sacking of judges and magistrates in Fiji; and their subsequent replacements, drawn from unrelated people and places of questionable quality and integrity. This highlights the need for an independent judiciary in a democracy.’’

And it is not just Fiji. Recent events in Tonga, for example, show the vulnerability of independent minded judges, who do not have security of tenure but hold office on a fixed term contract, which may not be renewed should a judge be perceived by the government of the day to be too independent or insufficiently compliant, he said.

Hampton, who was the top law graduate from UC in 1964, was the first commissioner of standards and discipline of counsel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and was Tonga’s Chief Justice 1995 to 1997.

ends

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