Human rights in the Pacific – milestones, challenges and the way forward

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By Heike Alefsen and Miles Young

There have been notable human rights developments in the Pacific during the past four years since the joint United Nations Human Rights-Pacific Community (SPC) report on the human rights situation in the region was last published: Achievements have included increased protection of human rights through changes in domestic law such as family protection legislation in Cook Islands, Nauru and Papua New Guinea; and new human rights initiatives such as social citizenship education in Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. Countries in the Pacific have also committed themselves to guaranteeing the rights of all individuals by ratifying international human rights treaties and ensuring their implementation at the national level – Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Samoa are now parties to the UN Convention against Torture, while the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified by Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia and Samoa.

And yet, there is more work to do including in the areas of freedom of expression, access to justice, the right to information and the dignified treatment of persons in custody. To achieve gender equality and the protection of the rights of women and girls, the representation of women in public and political spheres, especially at decision-making levels must be increased; discrimination and negative gender stereotypes tackled in law and in practice; and greater efforts undertaken to ensure women and children are free from violence. It is important to intensify access to social protection, guarantee the right to public healthcare in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and provide for decent work. Climate change is having a grave impact on many rights. More attention is required to enhance the rights to an adequate standard of living through housing, education, clean water and sanitation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not impacted everyone equally but entrenched social divisions and worsened inequality. It has reversed development gains and exacerbated challenges faced by marginalized groups in the Pacific such as women, persons with disabilities, children, older persons, LGBTQI persons and indigenous people. Human rights defenders, and their protection, are needed now more than ever.

These are some of the key findings of the Human Rights Situational Analysis Report 2016-2020 (HRSA Report 2020) that we published recently as a joint initiative of the Pacific Community’s Human Rights and Social Development Division (SPC HRSD) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Pacific Regional Office (OHCHR PRO).

What does the report discuss?

Our report analyses the situation of human rights across 16 Pacific Island Countries (PICs): Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. We previously issued a joint report in 2016, and OHCHR published a first edition in 2012.

This edition covers the period from June 2016 to December 2019 and includes a special chapter on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human rights in the Pacific in 2020. The report has been compiled based on desktop research from open sources, including the United Nations Universal Periodic Review and treaty bodies. It provides an overview of the challenges, achievements and progress made by countries. We hope that it will help inform decision-making about law, policy and strategy, including in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not a scorecard or assessment of the rights records of countries in the region but sheds light on selected critical issues, areas of advancement, and contemporary risks.

What are National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) doing for the protection of human rights?

These independent bodies with the responsibility to protect, monitor and promote human rights are a key element of the national human rights protection system, yet underrepresented in the Pacific. Fiji and Samoa have had national human rights institutions for years, and Tuvalu has established an Ombudsman during the reporting period. Only Samoa has an A-status institution, meeting the requirements of the Paris Principles, the global standard. Between 2016 to 2019, the NHRIs in Fiji and Tuvalu did not meet the international benchmarks to be accredited by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI); however, Fiji was working towards accreditation. Since 2016, there has been increasing interest amongst PICs in establishing NHRIs – the Cook Islands, FSM, Kiribati, RMI, Nauru, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have either passed legislation, undertaken studies or made other commitments to establish an NHRI.

How have PICs engaged with the international human rights system?

A welcome development is the increased number of ratifications of international human rights treaties and optional protocols by Pacific Island Countries, from a total of 65 human rights treaties and optional protocols acceded to or ratified by 10 PICs in 2016 to 73 by 13 in 2020. Fiji is the first PIC to be party to all nine-core international human rights treaties and recently to two optional protocols on children’s rights, while RMI is a party to seven of the nine, up from three in 2016.

There has been increased reporting to treaty bodies on the implementation of States’ obligations under the respective international human rights treaties, and prior to COVID-19 there was greater engagement with the independent Special Procedures experts of the United Nations Human Rights Council who visited countries in the Pacific: e.g., the Special Rapporteur on cultural rights paid a visit to Tuvalu in 2019, the Special Rapporteur on Health to Fiji in 2019, and the Special Rapporteur on the right to housing in 2020 to New Zealand. With a 100% participation rate in the Universal Periodic Review by all countries in the Pacific, most have undergone their comprehensive human rights review for the third time. To ensure sustained and systematic engagement with the international human rights mechanisms, including in the implementation of recommendations at the domestic level, National Mechanisms for Reporting and Follow-up have been established in FSM, Kiribati, RMI, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.

Pacific representation on the United Nations Human Rights Council has increased in the recent past. In 2018, Fiji became the first PIC to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council and then became Vice-President in 2019 and President in 2021. RMI joined the Council in 2020 and has been playing an active role particularly on climate change.

In March 2020, Samoa hosted the extraordinary outreach session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the first time a human right treaty body met outside of Geneva or New York. The CRC reviewed the situation of children’s rights in the Cook Islands, FSM and Tuvalu, and engaged directly with children to hear their views and opinions about issues that affect them, including on climate change. This session highlighted the importance of bringing the treaty bodies closer to the rights-holders on the ground, which helps not only to promote awareness, but also helps countries in the region: one of the key findings of the post session analysis was that the Committee was able to issue more context-specific recommendations with better understanding of the regional context that include the role played by culture and village councils, for instance.

What challenges remain in terms of human rights across the region?

The challenge for the region is to ensure that its countries’ commitments to human rights are converted into real benefits on the ground so that people in the Pacific can enjoy free, healthy and productive lives.

Increasing inequalities, social exclusion and discrimination need to be addressed to ensure the meaningful inclusion and equal participation of individuals and communities in all their diversity in development initiatives and disaster relief efforts in terms of planning, implementation and follow-up. Governance systems need to create more space for people participation especially in regard to law and policy making, as well as for accountability and must ensure the use of maximum available resources to combat inequality and discrimination.

While 11 of the 14 PICs are party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, gender equality and violence against women and girls remain an issue in the region – the rates of violence against women across PICs are amongst the highest in the world, Pacific women have the lowest representation in national parliaments and local governments globally, and Pacific men outnumber Pacific women by 2:1 in formal employment.

While 11 of the 14 PICs are party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, persons with disabilities in the Pacific are among the most marginalized in their communities, they are over represented among those living in poverty and underrepresented in social, economic and public life, including in decision-making, and they generally have lower health and education outcomes.

The mental, physical, and economic consequences of COVID-19 will be felt across the Pacific for years to come as the pandemic has disproportionately affected already marginalized people and communities and set the development agenda back. The immediate and blunt driving force of the pandemic’s impact was the economic impact of the measures taken to largely keep the virus under control across much of the region. Public debt among the Pacific islands, on average, has already risen since the end of the global financial crisis. The COVID-19-induced economic downturn means hardship for people, and new borrowing and debt funding for infrastructure and social welfare by Pacific Island governments is extremely limited.

In many countries, rapid response had lessened the direct health consequences of the pandemic at the time of finalizing our report in late 2020, but those gains have not held up everywhere as fresh waves have been affecting countries such as Fiji and PNG. Systemic and widespread human rights violations such as violence against women and girls are exacerbated in times of emergency and undermine recovery efforts and progress towards the sustainable development goals. COVID 19 has shown that governments around the world need to invest more in sustainable health and social protection systems.

Governments are responsible for the protection of rights and faced with the challenges of delivering public health but also protecting other rights, including to freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of movement and people’s right to participate in public affairs especially in regards to law and policy-making and in humanitarian contexts. Emergency measures that infringe on fundamental human rights during the pandemic need to be legal, necessary and proportionate to be in compliance with human rights standards.

Along with governments civil society organisations have been at the forefront of the response to COVID-19, reaching and supporting communities with the backing and support of the international community and donors. Journalists, civil society actors and human rights defenders in mainstream media and on social platforms have been key to ensuring a flow of critical information on the COVID-19 pandemic, on prevention and raising the visibility of human rights issues on the enjoyment and access to health, food, information and justice across the region. Participation is a civil right, and there is a realization that there must be inclusion for development initiatives to enjoy community support and ownership.

Pathways

Looking forward, the Pacific can learn from lessons in relation to a pressing and emerging issue which threatens the rights of its people – climate change. In responding to COVID-19, climate change adaptation, mitigation and prevention efforts should not diminish nor should allocated resources be redirected. To do so would risk further undermining rights now and development progress into the future. COVID-19 has starkly highlighted that response efforts and longer-term development interventions must ensure adequate protection and notably prevention against future disasters.

To ‘build better’ in the Pacific means adopting a human rights-based approach and seeking to transform social and cultural norms that hinder human rights implementation. It means enabling the meaningful participation of affected communities, to foster inclusion, inspire ownership and to draw on local understanding and traditional knowledge to ensure sustainable development. It also means that governments and development partners need to be more accountable in their work through access to information so that people and communities, especially those who are marginalised and adversely affected, can routinely provide feedback and raise concerns.

The UN and SPC’s ‘People Centred Approach’ to development brings together a human rights-based approach, gender equality and a social inclusion lens, and cultural development and environmental sustainability. It is designed to put people at the center of decision-making support stakeholders in Pacific states and development partners build better, together.

The HRSA 2020 Report is part of our technical cooperation and partnership with Pacific Island Countries. The next publication is earmarked for 2023/2024. In the meantime, by sharing these action points, we increase and intensify our resolve and efforts to work with countries across the Pacific on their path to human rights and sustainable development.

Heike Alefsen
Regional Representative of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for the Pacific

Miles Young SPC Director, Human Rights and Social Developement Division (Suva)

SOURCE: SPC/PACNEWS