Fiji: Ahead of the Pack in Recognising Secularism, by Meg Wallace

Turbulent beginnings

When I visited Fiji several weeks ago, it was a beautiful jewel in the sun. Now it is largely in ruins, rebuilding after one of the Pacific’s worst cyclones in recorded history.

My visit as president of the Rationalist Society of NSW was to offer our support for the establishment of a democratic, secular society for the Pacific Islands, with Fiji the focal point, due to its recent remarkable constitutional and political adoption of state secularism in a society formerly divided ethnically and religiously.

Currently the people of Fiji are concerned with getting their lives back together, as thousands are without homes, electricity, food and water across its hundreds of islands. Interest has been sparked, however, and while on temporary hold, the Pacific Islands Secular Association has been established, with a blog (https://pacificsecularists.wordpress.com/).

Fiji is an archipelago of more than 332 islands: 110 permanently inhabited, (population around 900,000) and more than 500 islets. Around 87% of the population lives on two major islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. The main industries, tourism and sugar cane, along with forests, minerals, and fish resources, have made Fiji one of the most developed economies in the Pacific.

Fiji had turbulent, volcanic beginnings 150 million years ago. It was a British colony from 1874 until 1970. The first governor of Fiji, Arthur Charles Hamilton-Gordon, adopted a policy disallowing the use of indigenous labour or any interference in tribal village culture or way of life, bringing in Indian contract labourers to work on the sugar plantations.

Colonisation resulted in the widespread establishment of religion, mainly Methodism, and a political climate dominated by ethnic chiefs and Christianity. Since then, tensions between the indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian ethnic groups have caused significant social and political unrest.

Recently, social and political life has also been turbulent. Fiji has seen coups and constitutional crises, mainly due to fear among indigenous Fijians of losing political control and favoured land tenure rights to the ethno-Indian community, who dominated the economy. The power of the unelected Great Council of Chiefs and their allies, the churches, was seen to be threatened. There were two coups in 1987, the second resulting in Fiji becoming a republic. In 1990, a new constitution enshrining political dominance for indigenous Fijians was introduced, but in 1997 a new, non-discriminatory constitution was adopted and an ethno-Indian Prime Minister elected.

Disaffected iTauku Fijians staged a coup in 2000, aimed at making indigenous Fijians the dominant political force and toppling the country’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. A new constitution was followed by elections in 2001 but failed to produce government stability . There was a further coup in 2006, led by top military commander Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama. After several years of constitutional crisis, Bainimarama appointed a Constitutional Commission which recommended equality of citizenship and the end of ethno-Fijian and religious privilege.

In a country divided racially and religiously, some strongly influential religious groups wanted Fiji to be declared a Christian nation. Chairman of the Commission Professor Yash Ghai, stated: ‘we cannot be endorsing human rights if we strive to make Fiji a Christian State because the two issues contradict each other’:

[T]he separation of state from religion and culture does not mean that the state is opposed to religion and culture. On the contrary, this separation is in the interests of religion and culture, freeing them from the regulation by the state.

In 2013, the new Constitution was promulgated by fiat, making Fiji a democracy. For the first time, the name “Fijian”, and full citizenship (including voting and land tenure rights) would no longer belong exclusively to indigenous Fijians. The state was declared secular. The Methodist Church objected strongly to these changes, but elections held in 2014 strongly endorsed the Constitution and Bainimarama as Prime Minister.

Fiji surges ahead of the Pack

From these disorderly beginnings, Fiji is transforming its government to jump ahead of its neighbours (significantly, Australia and New Zealand) in becoming a republic with a constitutionally established secular government, bill of rights and separation of religion and state.

A statement of rights is in practice a statement of obligations that third parties owe the rights-bearer. The statement should give effect to the overall principles to be followed, by setting them out in specific operational terms that can be clearly understood and acted upon. Vague or general statements set out in conventional bills of rights of rights, such as those in international treaties, establish the broad principles, but can be ineffective due to ambiguity and diverse interpretations. This can lead to endless legal and social disputation, with contradictory or disparate outcomes. Mandated behaviour requires specific language aimed at maximising the promise of freedom for all individuals, religious or otherwise.

The Fiji Constitution recognises this. It has divided its approach to religion in two separate sections. Firstly, in Section 4, Fiji is pronounced a secular state, with ‘religious freedom’ its founding principle. Religion is declared ‘personal’.

Religion and the state are proclaimed to be separate and what this entails is specified. All persons holding a public office

  • must regard all beliefs as having equal significance;
  • must not dictate any religious belief;
  • must not prefer or advance, by any means, any religion, religious belief, denomination or practice over another, or any non-religious belief.

No person shall assert any belief as a legal reason to disregard the Constitution or any other law.

Section 22 then specifies what freedom of belief means for the individual. It provides that everyone shall have the right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief, and the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching. Specifically, the state cannot compel anyone to

  • act or take an oath contrary to their religion or belief, or express a belief they don’t hold;
  • participate in religious instruction or observance contrary to their religion, or if a child, that of their parents.

Section 22 rights are subject to globally accepted limitations by the state: protection of the rights and freedoms of others, public order, safety, morality or health, and prevention of public nuisance.

With more acknowledgement of non-religious beliefs, and reconsideration of the Government’s apparent concession to funding religious education (section 22(5), this is an excellent model for incorporating both equality and freedom when it comes to establishing state-belief separation.

Australia and New Zealand are constitutional monarchies, with the Queen of England as our head of state. Australia has a written Constitution that does not clearly provide for secularism or state-belief separation, and New Zealand has no written Constitution, but a conventional Bill of Rights in ordinary legislation of uncertain enforceability. We can well learn from our smaller neighbour.

The Pacific Island Secular Association is a potential catalyst for increasing public acceptance and understanding of the terms of the Constitution. With the growing influence of the internet and consequent awareness of the benefits of specifying the obligations attached to human rights, perceptions may be changing around the globe, and secularism as separation of church and state may one day no longer be an unfulfilled promise.

megwallace