Rights vital for all

WHEN the term human rights come up, the first things that usually come to mind are people’s entitlement to life, basic necessities such as food, water, shelter, equality and so on.

Because of the stark importance of human rights education in the community, the National Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission (HRADC) with the support of partners such as the European Union and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) facilitated a meeting with young people and NGOs in the Western Division.

Almost 74 members of the disabled, sex worker and youth community in Lautoka were part of National Human Rights Commission Dialogue meeting.

Vulnerable populations

Considered one of the most important facets of modern society, the youth population has often been labelled “the future of the country”.

To voice their opinions on the need for human rights education in the country, vocal youth community members gathered in Lautoka to share ideas with like-minded individuals.

Among them was vocal advocate Polly McGoon. A peer educator with the Pacific Rainbows Advocacy Network (PRAN), she said one of the most marginalised communities in society were sex workers — most of whom were also part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community.

“Though marginalised, we all have rights too and we are still human beings,” he said.

The event was officiated by National Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission director Ashwin Raj and South Africa-based University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College centre for socio-legal studies director Professor David Mason.

Speaking about her experience, Polly said many sex workers were still “people, some of whom struggled to support their families.

“Let God be the judge, not the people. I also think it is very good to have such meetings because this is a great way to participate and give our feedback about struggles and challenges and it is great to see the stakeholders present too.”

Another youth Krishneel Naicker, who suffers from eye and limb problems, said this was a great way to engage young people.

He said there were issues impacting the disabled youth community in the country, many of which centred around equal employment opportunity.

Need for human rights

The HRADC describes human rights as rights inherent to all human beings regardless of nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language or any other status.

HRADC director Ashwin Raj said it was important for communities to know this.

“This is an important consultation for the National Human Rights Commission because we want to hear from the youth of the country about what their concerns are about what human rights issues affect them,” he said.

“We wanted to also ensure that the human rights agenda is driven by the people of Fiji so we are not imposing an agenda on them and for that to happen, it’s critical that the National Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission actually listens to the people of the country and the youth in particular.”

He said the commission was in the process of formulating its annual corporate plan.

“It is good that we have wide public consultations and we also wanted to hear from the Western and Northern divisions so after this we hope to go to the North hear the youth there.”

More consultations

Apart from youths, the commission also met personnel from NGOs and civil society organisations (CSOs).

“What we want to do is have meaningful discussions because human rights are also about right to narrate and listening as a democratic exercise,” Mr Raj said.

“We want to be able to listen to these people and what their key concerns are and to strategise how the commission can be most responsive and effective in dealing with the concerns of the people of Fiji.

“It is going to be very useful in terms of getting to hear about some of the challenges they have but also educating and advocating to the public about what their constitutional rights are.”

He said there was still a number of people who didn’t necessarily know what the Bill of Rights contained.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about what the Constitution has, the political biases and all of that. So our job is to look at it in the most impartial manner and to educate the public and tell them what their Constitutional rights are,” Mr Raj said.

“This is also about freedom of expression we want people to be able to speak their mind about their concerns and that is why we are here today.”

For the people

The National HRADC belongs to the people of Fiji and it is not the property of any specific political entity, says director Ashwin Raj.

He said their role was to investigate impartially, receive complaints and make policy recommendations which could only be done by listening to the people of Fiji.

“I don’t mean listening to a few political elite but your ordinary folks because their voices matter,” he said.

Mr Raj said the allocation from the national budget would also allow the commission to be adequately resourced.

“What the commission now needs to do is strengthen its capacity to investigate, it needs to strengthen its education and advocacy role, reach out to the most rural and remote communities which is why we are here.

“It needs to hold many public consultations, it needs to help develop jurisprudence and more litigation before the courts on human rights violations.

“We’ve had a few successes but we also need to start a much more robust campaign around some of the fundamental things like the rights of those who are arrested and detained, looking at social and economic rights issues.

“I mean arbitrary evictions are very serious human rights violations in Fiji and we need to look at those, the right to housing, water, sanitation and these are fundamental rights that affect our people.”

Other key areas Mr Raj said the commission also needed to look into discrimination in the workplace, discrimination as it related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

“There are serious discussions we need to have in this country on freedom of expression and hate speech and I think that’s one area we really need to invest our energy and efforts in because we are on the cusp of an election.

“There are rights to freedom of expression and assembly and at the same time, know what are the limitations and also ensure authorities never abuse those limitations because they are trying to supress dissenting voices.”

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