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Fiji: New Constitution Signed into Law

(Sept. 9, 2013) On September 6, 2013, the President of Fiji formally assented to a new constitution in a ceremony at Government House in the capital, Suva. The constitution comes into effect immediately. (President Signs Long-Awaited Fiji Constitution into Law, ABC RADIO AUSTRALIA (Sept. 6, 2013); Mereani Gonedua, Constitution Effective After Presidential Assent, FIJILIVE (Sept. 5, 2013).) The text of the constitution is available on the Fijian government website (last visited Sept. 6, 2013).


The interim Fiji government released a final version of the constitution on August 22, 2013, after having released a draft in March. (Fiji Government Releases Final Version of Constitution, Paving the Way for 2014 Elections, AUSTRALIA NETWORK NEWS (Aug. 22, 2013).) The new constitution replaces the 1997 constitution, which was abrogated by the President in 2009 after the Court of Appeal ruled that the interim military government, in place since a 2006 coup, was illegal. (President Praises Bainimarama’s Government, THE FIJI TIMES ONLINE (Apr. 10, 2009).)

The interim Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, later established an independent Constitution Commission to draft and undertake public consultation on a new constitution. However, in early 2013, the government rejected the constitution that the Commission had provided in December 2012 and announced that the government itself would draft the document. (Matt Siegel, Fiji’s Government Rejects Proposed Constitution, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Jan. 11, 2013).)


Some of the features of the new constitution include:

· all Fiji citizens are called “Fijians” for the first time in a Fiji constitution;

· the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18 years of age;

· 50 members of parliament will be elected every four years from a single national constituency, rather than from multiple electorates. Previously, Fiji’s electorates had been race-based. Under the new constitution, there are no special reserved seats in the parliament for any group; and

· the communal ownership of land by iTaukei (the name for indigenous Fijians under the constitution) is expressly protected. (Satendra Nandan, Fiji Constitution Offers Better and Fairer Society for All – A Window of Opportunity, PACIFIC.SCOOP (Aug. 27, 2013); Matthew Dornan, New Constitution for Fiji, DEVPOLICY BLOG (Aug. 27, 2013).)

Reactions to the New Constitution

Several people who protested outside Government House prior to the signing of the constitution were arrested by police and then released. (Fiji Police Arrest 14 Protestors Outside Government House, RADIO NEW ZEALAND INTERNATIONAL (Sept. 6, 2013); Protesters Arrested as Fiji’s President Prepares to Give Assent to New Constitution, ABC RADIO AUSTRALIA (Sept. 6, 2013).)

Human rights groups have criticized some aspects of the new constitution, including provisions relating to immunity for members of the interim government and those involved in the 2006 coup. The constitution also confirms that all 270 decrees promulgated by the government since the coup will remain law and, in the view of critics, sets out “broad limitations” on rights of freedom of association, assembly, and expression. (Press Release, Human Rights Watch, Fiji: Revise Draft Constitution to Protect Rights (Sept. 4, 2013).)

Human Rights Watch called on the government to revise the constitution to “ensure that rights and freedoms are protected at all times, including during emergency situations.” (Id.) Amnesty International noted that in a 2009 report it had documented a number of human rights violations that had occurred under emergency regulations issued by the interim government. Isabelle Arradon, the organization’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director, stated that “[t]he new constitution not only erodes basic human rights for the people of Fiji, but grants military, police and government officials absolute immunity for past, present and future human rights violations. This will only serve to allow the perpetrators of serious crimes to act with impunity.” (Press Release, Amnesty International, Fiji: New Constitution Fails to Protect Fundamental Human Rights (Sept. 4, 2013).)

Both Australia and New Zealand welcomed the constitution when it was released in August, as did leaders of other Pacific Island nations. (Pacific Island Leaders Welcome the Release of Fiji’s New Constitution, ABC Radio Australia (Sept. 5, 2013).) Australia’s Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, said that the constitution “represented an important step forward for Fiji’s commitment to hold elections by September 2014.” (Press Release, Hon. Bob Carr, Fiji Constitution (Aug. 24, 2013).)

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, said that, although the country may not like the immunity provisions, they were not a “deal breaker” and may be a necessary compromise to guarantee that fair and democratic elections will be held next year. (Isaac Davison, Key: NZ Will Accept Immunity Clause for Fiji Coup Leaders, THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD (Sept. 2, 2013).) Fiji’s opposition political parties subsequently accused Key of appeasing the military government. (NZ Accused of Appeasing Fiji’s Coup-Installed Government, AUSTRALIA NETWORK NEWS (Sept. 5, 2013).)