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New National Compass to guide democratic election

This is a momentous year for Fiji as we approach the first genuinely democratic election in our nation’s history on September 17.

For the first time, this election will be conducted on the universal democratic principle of equal votes of equal value instead of the skewered system employed in the past.

For the first time, every citizen will go to cast their votes as a Fijian, a common and equal citizenry sharing the same name and enjoying equal political, economic and social rights, while recognising the special place of our indigenous people.

Every Fijian will have equal access to substantive justice no matter who they are.

New Constitution

Last year, we reset our national compass with a historic new Constitution, including a Bill of Rights, which is arguably one of the strongest in the world.

In addition to civil and political rights, this Constitution guarantees Fijians access to a range of social and economic rights, most of them for the first time.

Ordinary people now enjoy guarantees of free education, adequate housing and health care, social security, clean water and a clean environment. They also have a right to economic participation. The constitution also for the first time protects the rights of disabled Fijians.

All these rights are not only enforceable through such bodies as the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, the Legal Aid Commission and the Judiciary, these rights cannot be taken away.

Human Rights revolution

Therefore, we are in the throes of a human rights revolution in Fiji, one that upholds the basic rights of ordinary people in a way that has never been the case before. We are also increasing access to justice for ordinary people, such as access to the courts and their right to a fair trial by increasing the budget of the Legal Aid Commission and by opening a string of Legal Aid Offices across the country.

My Government is committed not only to developing these rights but looks forward to a healthy jurisprudence emerging from Fiji which can serve as a guide to other countries considering the inclusion of social and economic rights in their own Constitutions and subordinate laws.

Obsolete arguments

The old arguments against the development of social and economic rights as enforceable rights that the judiciary should not make judgments which have resource implications and are an interference with executive power, are in my view no longer valid in Fiji.

Our courts have been making important judgments in the development of civil and political human rights, for some time. Almost all those judgments have had resource implications, whether it was in the building of a new remand centre in accordance with the United Nations Minimum Standard Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or whether it was to order the State to provide legal aid for a defendant in a treason trial.

Almost all human rights cases have resource implications, whether the rights are civil and political, or social and economic.

Individual Rights

In including all such social and economic rights in our Constitution, Fiji has shown commitment to the substantive development of individual rights and freedoms in our country. We believe that rights are only meaningful if they are able to cut across bureaucracy, cultural barriers, and institutional weakness to make a real difference to the rights of individuals.

Equality paramount

We have been determined all along to create a more equal society in Fiji, a more just society, one in which every citizen enjoys the same opportunity.

I firmly believe that true equality is the foundation stone of genuine democracy. I therefore firmly believe that we have demolished entrenched privilege and laid that foundation of equality on which our nation can be rebuilt as one Nation, One Fiji, with opportunity and justice for all.

For the first time, on September 17, every Fijian will go to the polls as an equal, their vote worth precisely the same as any other citizen. They will have the same rights and with it, the same dignity.

Independent election

We have also ensured that the election process itself is completely independent, with an independent Electoral Commission and an Elections Office with dedicated staff to organise and conduct the one-day poll.

This is instead of the previous practice of using civil servants to conduct the election, a process that was open to abuse. We have reached overseas to recruit a team of international experts to avoid some of the fraud and mismanagement that marred previous elections in Fiji.

To ensure that ordinary Fijian voters fully understand the process, Fiji has embarked on a massive campaign of voter education. More than 550,000 voters have so far registered using the new electronic system. We have sent teams to those parts of the world where there are known to be large numbers of Fijians living to include them in the election process.

Historic event

The stage is being set for a truly historic event in the life of our nation on September 17, introduction of our first genuine democracy.

It goes hand in hand with the plethora of basic human rights that no Fijian has ever enjoyed before. In the midst of this revolution, I am proud to launch our first United Nations Mission in Geneva, a symbol of our commitment to the UN ideal and the rights of every Fijian.

Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama is the Prime Minister of Fiji. The above is a part of an address that he delivered in Geneva on June 6, 2014 to mark the opening of the Fiji Mission at the UN.

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