Fiji urged to revise draft constitution

New York, Sep 4 (IANS) The Fiji government should amend articles that undermine human rights in a draft constitution scheduled to be promulgated Friday, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

While the draft constitution requires respect for certain rights, it includes onerous restrictions that will allow the government to restrict other rights with ease and to guarantee far-reaching immunity for past human rights abuses.

In January, the government scrapped a draft of the constitution developed by a committee headed by a noted constitutional and human rights lawyer, Yash Ghai, and handed duties to draw up the constitution to government legal officers in the attorney general's chambers.

"This draft constitution represents a major step backwards for human rights from the constitution thrown out by Fiji's military in April 2009," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

"Unless the government revises this draft constitution to guarantee freedom of association, assembly and expression, it's hard to see how Fiji could become a rights-respecting democracy."

Since Commodore Frank Bainimarama took power in a military coup Dec 5, 2006, his government has consistently attacked critics, including arbitrarily detaining them, and instituted heavy censorship, the rights body said.

The military and police have indiscriminately arrested and detained human rights defenders, journalists and labour leaders.

Under the current draft, significant restrictions in articles 17, 18 and 19 would allow the government to interfere with key rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association.

The draft constitution sets out broad limitations to these rights "in the interests of national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, or the orderly conduct of elections".

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