As the world marks Human Rights Day on 10 December, let us celebrate the efforts of Pacific governments, civil society and individuals to advance human rights in our region.
Opinion piece for Human Rights Day 2015 by the Director-General of the Pacific Community, Dr Colin Tukuitonga
Pacific cultures value fairness, equality, protection of the most vulnerable, helping and serving others, participation, dialogue and consensus building. These are human rights values and principles that are not foreign but embedded in Pacific beliefs, laws, policies and in international human rights instruments.
Whether we realise it or not, human rights considerations cut across priority sectors, including economic, social and cultural rights, as well as political and civil rights and freedoms.
The Pacific Community (SPC) is committed to the principles of good governance and to the defence and promotion of human rights. For 20 years, through our Human Rights Programme, SPC has been deepening relationships of trust with governments, judiciaries, parliamentarians, non-governmental, faith and community-based organisations. Via our Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), we encourage the interpretation of international human rights in the context of Pacific cultures and way of life.
We support our country and territory members through training, technical support, legislative drafting, policy advice and advocacy services to policy and decision makers, government service providers and civil society organisations. This includes assisting lawyers, magistrates, members of parliament and key implementing agencies to apply human rights standards to their work.
One recent outcome in this context is the Denarau 2015 Declaration on Human Rights and Good Governance, signed by 19 Members of Parliament from 13 Pacific Island countries, who pledged to respect, fulfil, protect and promote the inherent rights of all peoples in the Pacific.
Acceding to treaties shows commitment to human rights standards for the delivery of services and opportunities for all citizens to access basic rights and freedoms that enable development outcomes. SPC provides training and ongoing mentoring in the process of treaty ratification and reporting, together with technical assistance for national legislative alignment to international human rights standards.
Pacific Island countries are reviewed every four to five years on their human rights records by a United Nations mechanism called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). In the first round of UPR reporting, SPC assisted Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu with their reviews. The UPR has now entered its second reporting cycle and, so far, Fiji, FSM, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, and have received our support.
The theme for Human Rights Day this year is “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always”. Fundamental to ensuring the protection of human rights is the promotion of legislative reform. SPC assists Pacific states with drafting legislation and policy, and ensuring international human rights standards are infused into programme planning, policy development and legislative reform in human rights priority areas, such as gender equality, disability, the rule of law and climate change.
Recent research by the United Nations in six Pacific countries shows the prevalence of violence against women is among the highest in the world, with two out of three women having experienced violence, too often at the hand of an intimate partner or family member. Highlighting the urgency of ending violence against women has been the focus of “16 Days of Activism in the Pacific”, a campaign led by SPC and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat that culminates on Human Rights Day.
SPC provides technical support to its members in the preparation, enactment and implementation of domestic violence legislation. This includes the creation of domestic violence protection orders, responsibilities of the Police and service providers, and the introduction of preventative measures, education and monitoring mechanisms.
Kiribati, Tonga, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands are in the process of moving from “Act to Action”, ensuring that women are aware of, and able to access, the protections provided for in their respective national legislation. SPC is also supporting the development of new domestic violence legislation in Nauru and Niue.
Formed in 1998, our partnership with the University of the South Pacific (USP) to promote effective leadership and governance, has seen more than 880 law students from across the Pacific complete a Postgraduate Professional Diploma in Legal Practice. The 22-week course prepares students for entry into legal practice and equips them to apply a human rights and gender-sensitive lens to access to justice. Additionally, 1061 students – 57 per cent of whom are women – have passed through a jointly run Diploma in Leadership, Governance and Human Rights, introduced in 2013.
SPC is able to contribute to such outcomes thanks to the support of the Australian Government, the European Union and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Our 26 members strongly endorsed the Pacific Community Strategic Plan 2016-2020 at our Conference held in Niue last month. This plan reinforces our commitment to the defence of human rights and ensures the needs of the most vulnerable in our societies will remain at the forefront of SPC’s work.