On 28 and 29 April 2008 55 representatives of civil society organisations, National Human Rights Institutions and international human rights organisations, Members of Parliament, the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, RRRT, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Regional Office for the Pacific, the Asia Pacific Forum, the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the Pacific Island Police Commissioners, jurists and academics based in Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Samoa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and the United Kingdom met in Apia, Samoa to consider Strategies for the Future: Protecting Human Rights in the Pacific. They were joined by officials of the Government of Samoa including inter alia, officials from the Samoan Attorney-General's Office, Foreign Affairs, Parliamentary Counsel Office and the Office of the Ombudsman...

The first day of the conference was devoted to an analysis of human rights issues in the Pacific. The key note address was given by Ms Imrana Jalal, Fiji's first human rights commissioner, exploring whether a Pacific human rights charter was desirable. After exploring the history of a regional Pacific human rights charter and its failure to evolve she pointed out that in 2007, Judicial Officers and NGOs in the Pacific called for a regional human rights mechanism. She emphasised that 19 years after the LAWASIA Charter the call for a regional human rights mechanism has been made by Pacific people themselves. She believes the climate has changed from the one in which the 1989 Charter was discussed She argued a regional mechanism could take account of regional peculiarities and complementing the UN human rights convention system, for example, the right to fish is an important right; the right to a safe environment is critical to Pacific Islanders, especially since climate change effects are being felt disproportionately in the Pacific. Her speech was complimented on Day 2 by Kathryn Hey, Massey University, New Zealand, whose paper drew on interviews with six participants in the Pacific region in regard to the question whether a regional human rights mechanism was desirable. She concluded that a coordinated approach was needed for a regional mechanism to be successfully implemented.

In the following sessions the identified human rights issues culture and language, education, health, environment and rule of law were discussed on the basis of the country reports. Professor Lau Asofou Soo, National University of Samoa, examined culture and language and its interface with human rights. He came to the conclusion that reconciling traditional values with human rights principles was possible but a gradual process and will take time and patience.

Father Tevita, Friendly Island Human Rights and Democracy Movement in Tonga focussed in the next session on health, recounting his experiences in Tonga. Before going into more detail about issues relating to health Father Tevita stated that there was a need for good governance and transparency in Tonga. In his review Father Tevita pointed out that due to economic restraints health care for the general public in Tonga was sub-standard. He gave an example, where a drug was used which had not been on the market in either Germany or New Zealand for the last 30 years.

Freda Talo, human rights lawyer and Chair, Individual and Community Rights Advocacy Forum, Papua New Guinea, set the scene to her presentation which focused on the right to education by pointing out that Papua New Guinea has six million people with 850 tribal groups and 860 languages. This creates enormous challenges, and that it is "quite amazing that we have held together without blood shed." ..

Susan Glazebrook, Judge of the New Zealand Court of Appeal, addressed the question of the right to a quality environment. The LAWASIA draft charter already had environment as a separate right. ...

The last presentation, canvassing the country reports, focussing on the rule of law was by Tupou Vere, Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, Fiji. Drawing from the country reports she pointed out that sometimes the line between Executive and Legislature seemed to be blurred. Naturally, Tupou Vere's presentation focussed on the situation in Fiji examining the state of the rule law during and since the last coup.

On the second day Professor Sarah Joseph, Monash University, discussed the impact of the WTO on human rights. She suggested that economic globalisation will be a challenge for the Pacific and discussed the role of the WTO as one of the chief agents in that. Outlining the pros and cons of Free Trade agreements and their impact on human rights she specifically identified challenges for the Pacific States in the danger to be used as precedent, like Vanuatu, for other countries which have not yet joined the WTO.

Professor Joseph was followed by Professor Unasa Faa, National University of Samoa, who spoke on "Human Rights and Custom". He used his native Samoa as an example to demonstrate that in his view custom and human rights are compatible concepts and that the implementation of human rights standards would not lead to a demise of customary practices- that peaceful coexistence was possible.

The four following presentation gave an overview of the European Convention on Human Rights and its implementation (Professor Kevin Boyle, Essex), the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (Mr Felipe Gonzalez, Human Rights Commissioner), the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (a paper prepared by Professor Jacques Fremont, University of Montreal whom the inefficiency of air travel prevented to coming but whose paper was summarised by Dr Petra Butler) and the emerging ASEAN Charter (Ms Sou Chiam, Barrister, Auckland). Those presentations gave the participants the chance to compare what had crystallised as human rights challenges in the Pacific with experiences in other parts of the world.

Ms Kendra Dessereux, PACLII showed the participants the possibilities an online database like PACLII offers to disseminate information around the Pacific and to empower courts, NGOs, and human rights lawyers in their use of and adherence to human rights.

The panel discussion at the end with panellists Ms Imrana Jalal, Professor Kevin Boyle, and Susan Farran, Senior Lecturer, University of Dundee chaired by Ms Andie Fong-Toy, Director of the Political and Security Programme, Pacific Island Forum Secretariat drew together the discussion of the two days stating that the conference had shown that the discussion on a regional mechanism had markedly evolved over the last years and that it was time now to establish a working group to draft a proposal for a regional mechanism. The final conference statement was discussed and is reproduced in this volume.


May the spirit of the conference continue.

Petra Butler

Wellington, May 2009


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