Transcript of interview (please check against audio)
“Sam Zarifi, Asia Pacific Regional Director of the ICJ: These arrests were alarming because they were very much the embodiment of the fears and the criticisms from many inside and outside the country about how the constitution would end up restricting political space and the ability of critical voices to be heard in the country. These are very prominent public figures in the country and so the message certainly is just not to these people themselves, but also quite a chilling effect on the country itself.
ABC Pacific Beat: It does appear though that these arrests were technically legal and that the people meeting had been in breach of a law.
Sam Zarifi, Asia Pacific Regional Director of the ICJ: Well again under international law its quite clear that freedom of assembly requires the government to allow people to gather to express their opinions and on this there’s really a clear reason to stop that. People should be allowed to do that. So this is exactly the kind of thing that the ICJ’s around the world where the limitations on freedom of assembly that were represented in the constitution originally and have been demonstrated by the Government, mean that a meeting like this for which there’s no reason to impose restrictions on, ends up giving the government an excuse to arrest people.
ABC Pacific Beat: So do you believe that Fiji’s constitution is in breach of its international obligations?
Sam Zarifi, Asia Pacific Regional Director of the ICJ: Fiji’s constitution and the way that it was ultimately brought into force and certainly in the restrictions that it imposes on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were criticized at the time, and unfortunately the Government has done nothing to change that in practice so in fact freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Fiji right now, the way the Government is violating those freedoms, absolutely stands in violation of its international obligations.
ABC Pacific Beat: Are you concerned that this is a setback to Fiji’s return to democracy?
Sam Zarifi, Asia Pacific Regional Director of the ICJ: Absolutely. The arrests of very high profile public figures at a time when they were discussing the constitution on Constitution Day is problematic in itself for the people concerned but also to the extent that it really sends a signal to everybody else in Fiji that the Government can arrest them simply for exercising their rights. So it has a significant chilling effect for the country and unfortunately indicates that really the Government is not moving forward with the process of increasing space for political engagement and critical voices to be heard in the country.
ABC Pacific Beat: Should countries like New Zealand and Australia be taking a stronger stand against this?
Sam Zarifi, Asia Pacific Regional Director of the ICJ: I think all countries should take a strong stance in terms of upholding these international obligations. Obviously starting with the Government of Fiji but certainly New Zealand and Australia are very significant actors, friends and partners to Fiji and its important for them to suggest and to show that these international obligations apply to every country everywhere and that countries that violate those and don’t meet those obligations will suffer consequences.”