Opinion: Pacific cultures and human rights; bound by common values

Human rights are guaranteed in constitutions across the Pacific and Pacific Island countries have committed to at least one of the nine core international human rights treaties. Picture: www.spc.com

Today, December 10, is International Human Rights Day, marking the day in 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a way of committing countries around the world to values and principles which help to reduce the risk of another world war.

The declaration sets out a broad range of fundamental rights and freedoms to which all of us across the world are entitled because we are human beings.

It guarantees our rights without distinction of nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, religion, language, or any other status.

To date, 192 counties across the globe are party to the declaration by virtue of being a member of the United Nations and next year will mark the 75th anniversary of this significant document, a remarkable achievement.

Human rights is a relatively new term for the Pacific and the question of its place among the region’s cultures, traditions and values has prompted much discussion.

Many from the Pacific claim that human rights is a foreign concept for the region.

Yet, core human rights values and principles such as dignity, fairness, respect, inclusion, non-discrimination, and the protection of the vulnerable, resonate in the rich and diverse tapestry of Pacific cultures.

Fijian concepts such as veidokai (honour) and veirokovi (respect), Tuvalu’s fale pili (my neighbour) and Samoa’s fa’aSamoa, all resonate with existing human rights values.

Human rights support and promote community, which we in the Pacific value and prioritise, by ensuring no one, especially the most vulnerable, is left behind.

Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, the late high chief and former vice president of Fiji, spent much time thinking about human rights and Pacific cultures and values: “Customs and human rights both concern rights. Human rights are understood to be the rights that are innate and inherent to each of us as individuals. Customary, traditional and cultural rights relate to our social mores as a distinct people or community. They include the ownership of land and natural resources, folk lore, traditional knowledge, and social systems. Both these species of rights belong to us by virtue of who and what we are.”

Human rights in the Pacific – a work in progress

Human rights are guaranteed in constitutions across the Pacific and Pacific Island countries have committed to at least one of the nine core international human rights treaties – Fiji is a party to all nine treaties, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is party to seven, and Samoa and Papua New Guinea are each party to six (see Table 1 below).

Over the recent past, some Pacific Island countries have assumed key leadership roles in the international human rights space – for example, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu are global leaders in using human rights as the basis for advocacy and actions to address climate change.

Meanwhile, several Pacific Island countries have shown interest in joining Fiji, Samoa and Tuvalu in setting up national human rights commissions to advance human rights domestically, and many have strengthened the way in which they monitor, implement and report on their human rights obligations and commitments.

Nonetheless, as a region there is much work to do to improve our collective human rights situation.

While signing up to human rights treaties is one thing, translating them into real, tangible benefits for Pacific Islanders remains a challenge for many of our Pacific Island countries.

For instance, we have one of the highest rates of violence against women and girls in the world and the percentage of women in our national parliaments is the lowest globally – this is despite a declaration by Pacific leaders in 2012 to improve gender equality and 11 Pacific Island countries committing to the international human rights treaty on eliminating discrimination against women.

Meanwhile, persons with disabilities in the Pacific are among the most marginalised in their communities, over-represented among those living in poverty and under-represented in social, economic and public life, with generally lower health and education outcomes – this is despite 11 Pacific Island countries committing to the international human rights treaty on the rights of persons with disabilities.

And there is still more work to do in areas such as freedom of expression, the right to information, and good governance (transparency, equity and inclusiveness, accountability, independence of state institutions, rule of law, etc).

2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent – a game changer?

In July this year, the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum countries (Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu) endorsed the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent as the long-term blueprint to advance the region over the next three decades.

With Fiji being Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum at the time, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama launched the 2050 Strategy at the 51st Pacific Island Forum meeting in Suva.

The 2050 Strategy envisions a “resilient Pacific Region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, that ensures all Pacific peoples can lead free, healthy and productive lives”.

The strategy commits the region to achieving this vision through “good governance, the full observance of democratic principles and values, the rule of law, the defence and promotion of all human rights, gender equality, and a commitment to just societies”.

Culture is also recognised and embedded as a cross-cutting thematic area.

In short, the 2050 Strategy is anchored in values and principles which apply a ‘people-centred development’ approach to how the Pacific plans to progress over the coming decades – indeed, ‘People-Centred Development’ is one of the seven priority themes of the Strategy.

As we mark International Human Rights Day 2022, let us celebrate that human rights, democratic principles and values, the rule of law, good governance, and gender equality, are key pillars of the road map for the Pacific over the coming decades.

The 2050 Strategy is a landmark document reflecting the collective thinking and wisdom of the Pacific as represented through our leaders.

Congratulations must also be offered for the inclusive, participatory and considered consultation process which informed the Strategy and resulted in its endorsement by Forum Island countries.

To help ensure adherence to the Strategy, leaders have committed to regularly checking on and assessing the performance and delivery of expected outcomes under the Strategy and ensuring accountability – but it falls on all of us as Pacific Islanders to help deliver on the Strategy, working together to achieve a “resilient Pacific Region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, that ensures all Pacific peoples can lead free, healthy and productive lives.”

• MILE YOUNG is the director of Human Rights and Social Development Division, Pacific Community (SPC). The views expressed are his and not necessarily shared by this newspaper.

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