Thursday, September 27, 2007

UN pact favours indigenes


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Two weeks ago the UN General Assembly adopted a non-binding declaration protecting human, land and resources rights of the world's 370 million indigenous people including more than 470,000 Fijians.

After 22 years of debate the treaty sets down protection for the human rights of native peoples and for their land and resources.

The general assembly passed the declaration with 143 countries voting in favour and 11 abstaining.

Many wondered why four nations Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States each with large indigenous populations of their own, voted against it.

While many indigenous people have hailed the declaration some have warned that it must not be misinterpreted or used against other races.

USP academic Doctor Ropate Qalo said the declaration or international law did not just represent the viewpoint of the UN or the indigenous people solely.

"It combines both views and interests setting the framework on which to build the future we long for.

"It is a tool with which we could build peace, justice and dignity," said Dr Qalo.

Countries that opposed the treaty said they did so because it was incompatible with their laws.

He said the four countries had their own Native Rights Treaty with their own aboriginal people which they had to closely view with regards to the Declaration which has evolved over 20 years.

"It is interesting to note that some African states wanted to renegotiate aspects of the draft when it went to the UN last year in December 2006.

"The fact that Australia, Canada, NZ and USA have their own views and their own laws or treaties does not mean that we should stop there and drop everything.

"No, that is the very essence of building understanding with regards to the mistakes of the past peacefully with justice and dignity," said Dr Qalo.

Pacific Conference of Churches moderator Bishop Apimeleki Qiliho, on behalf of member churches and the National Councils of Churches (NCCs) in the Pacific region, like indigenous groups, welcomed the formal adoption of the declaration.

"It is a most liberating moment for many of our indigenous peoples in the Pacific who belong to our churches," he said.

He said for many years, their people had been waiting for this recognition, many were still here and many had gone on before us.

"I recall the struggles that indigenous peoples in the Pacific went through to have their rights recognised.

"In some ways, political independence of some of our countries was a partial recognition of our indigenous peoples' rights.

"The Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was a continuation of the struggle for full recognition of indigenous rights," said Mr Qiliho.

The adoption of the Declaration, he says, however is not a blanket permission to begin chastising other ethnic groups and depriving them of their livelihood. Mr Qiliho said as indigenous peoples of the Pacific, many of whom are Christians, we must be mindful of one of the greatest lessons of the Exodus experience in the Old Testament we must not do to others what others have done to us.

"The formal adoption of the declaration should be used as the full recognition that indigenous peoples have a special place in our societies however small or large their numbers.

"Being indigenous people is humbling because on our shoulders rests the burden of responsible stewardship and governance.

"The adoption of the Declaration also brings into sharp focus the continual oppression of the indigenous peoples of West Papua and New Caledonia," he said.

He asked the international communities to address the abuse of human rights, the exploitation of natural resources and the right to self-determination of the people of West Papua.

Mr Qiliho said it was sad Australia and New Zealand, voted against the adoption of the declaration.

"It is harder now to find credibility in their pronouncements on democracy and human rights when their governments voted against the full recognition of the rights of their very own indigenous peoples.

"We call on churches to set aside a day of prayer, a day of worship to remember this significant and indeed liberating event to many of our people, and to be modest in our remembrance of it," he said.

Viti Landowners Resources Association president Ratu Osea Gavidi said Fijians needed to hail the declaration.

"Now that we know about the votes taken against us as indigenous people Fijians must be careful of changes that may be introduced from countries that voted against us.

"The petition made so passionately by people from these countries against the Qoliqoli, Bill the Indigenous Claims Tribunal and the Reconciliation, Truth and Unity Bill last year indicated their attempts to abolish customary laws," he said.

Ratu Osea said the declaration was a reminder to those trying to suppress indigenous rights to surrender their attempts.

He said it was time indigenous Fijians decided matters concerning what they traditionally owned and not allow "others" to influence their God-given resources.

"This declaration is a milestone achievement after 22 years of debate," he said. The Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party welcomes the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People's, says party president Ratu Kalokalo Loki.

Ratu Kalokalo said although the declaration was not binding on member states, the resolution was a great step for indigenous people around the world. "For Fiji the declaration provides the moral foundation for the enactment of laws such as the Qoliqoli Bill and Land Claims Tribunal Bill that protects the rights of indigenous Fijians instead of the narrow-minded People's Charter proposed by the interim regime," he said.

The SDL party, like other groups that welcomed the declaration, said it provided an excellent basis for the preparation of the plan for the development of indigenous Fijians as set out by the ousted government.

Party president Ratu Kalokalo Loki said the resolution was a huge step forward for indigenous people around the world.

"For Fiji the declaration provides the moral foundation for the enactment of laws such as the Qoliqoli Bill to promote and preserve Fijian customs and traditions," he said.

In a letter to the editor the Citizens Constitutional Forum executive director Reverend Akuila Yabaki warns those who welcomed the declaration that it did not over-ride the basic human rights of all people guaranteed in the 1997 Constitution and in the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

"The UN Declaration of Human Rights provides support for the rights of the indigenous people as long as it does not contravene basic human rights for all," he said.

Chief returns home to his seat

by Serafina Qalo -
Friday, September 28, 2007

AFTER 27 years working as a civil servant in Suva, Ratu Lausere Vakadrigi returned home to Vunivutu Village to assume traditional obligations handed down by birthright.

He took up the title of Tui Sawana in the district of Nadogo in the province of Macuata in Vanua Levu.

Taking up the role was not easy for Ratu Lausere but with support from family and villagers, he took the challenges that came with the chiefly title.

"I was born in the village but when I was five years old, an aunt of mine came from Suva to take me with her," he said.

"I grew up in the city, went to school and work there.

"The only time I came to the village was during the holidays and during leave from work.

"Taking up the chiefly title was not easy because I had to adjust to the village system, especially after spending my whole life in the city," Ratu Lausere said.

He said handling traditional duties and manner and adjusting to an environment where villagers now showed him respect as a chief was new to him.

"It's a totally different lifestyle for me because in Suva and before coming to the village, I looked up to my dad and aunt, who held the title before me and I was used to obeying their wishes.

"This time, the lifestyle I lived to obey orders from the top is a duty I have to carry out now.

"It is not easy because if anyone sees the way I socialise and talk to the villagers, one will not be able to make out who is the chief and who is the commoner."

Ratu Lausere said mingling and socialising with people without having to be treated as a chief was the lifestyle he had lived and enjoyed until now.

"I enjoy that lifestyle but now the responsibility has been given to me by the vanua and I have no choice but to serve the vanua and ensure that the interests of the village are looked after," he said.

"Most important, that the vanua and the people continue to work together and support each other in looking after our interests."

As part of his traditional obligations to the people, Ratu Lausere revived the fundraising for their electricity project.

"When I came in 2005, the villagers had started fundraising for the project but it came to a standstill.

"There was no more fundraising and the villagers had started to lose hope. So I called a meeting and told them to take up the challenge as adults and elders.

"I told them they had an obligation to the education of our young generation.

"What I told them seemed to wake them from their slumber and I could see that there was a renewed hope in them."

It was as if the villagers of Vunivutu and people of the vanua of Sawana had been temporarily lost without a leader but now the heir had assumed the throne, so to speak, and with a leader, the people had regained their sense of direction.

"From that day they promised to fulfill the village mission of having electricity for the sake of the villagers, especially our children to make it easier for them during the night when they did their homework and studied."

Electricity finally arrived in the village last week.

The villagers raised $25,000 in one day from a soli by people of Vunivutu in the village or working in other parts of Vanua levu and Viti Levu and last week was the launching of the project and the Fiji Electricity Authority connected light and power to Vunivutu.

Ratu Lausere said the villagers were united and worked together to bring electricity to the village but they needed to be challenged and reminded that as adults, they had a role to play for the sake of their future generation.

He said fulfilling their goal boosted their ego and now they want to develop their village by improving their living standards.

"We are now working on improving all the houses in the village," he said.

"I have been reminding the villagers that a clean village with beautiful neat homes always reflects what they have in their heart for their vanua."

End of story