Seeing Behind and Beyond the Beatings: Goff and Bainimarama
By Crosbie Walsh
I've said I wouldn't comment further on the bashing video until the police concluded their investigation but others, including PM Bainimarama and NZ Labour Party MP Phil Goff, have already beaten the gun. And both, in my opinion, have added to the wrong signals already sent about what happened and what is happening in Fiji.
The first signals. as always, came from the anti-Bainimarama blogs. These were promptly followed by journalist Michael Field, and from him to the world. Here are two examples from FijiToday: "Tourism Warning……. Police or Military can now beat and torture you without reason with our Prime Ministers blessing. Our Prime Minister says the torture was justified. “I will stick by my men, by the police officers or anyone else that might be named in this investigation.”
In fact, tourists have no more reason to fear than they ever have, there are vast differences between a severe beating and torture, no one does either without a reason, and the PM did not justify torture. He skirted around the issue by directing attention elsewhere, about which I'll say more later.
Field, citing "sources involved in its release, and several anti-regime blogsites, [said] one of the men being beaten was escaped prisoner Epeli Qaraniqio who was captured in September four days after escaping." But later he said this was not so. One wonders why he continues to rely on the anti-blogs for his information when they are shown so often to be incorrect and deliberately misleading. Not to mention the obvious that they are hardly an impartial source of information.
Goff and Peters
Tomorrow, Tuesday, the NZ Parliament will vote on a cross-party motion, introduced by Phil Goff, calling on Fiji to uphold United Nations conventions against torture and human rights. The resolution will formally condemn the violence and call on Fiji's military government to bring the perpetrators to justice. Goff thinks it unlikely the resolution will be lost.
Opposition NZ First leader Winston Peters (who, as Minister of Foreign Affairs,unsuccessfully tried to broker a deal between Qarase and Bainimarama immediately before the 2006 Coup) said he will vote in favour of the motion, adding that the UN and the British Army should stop hiring Fijian soldiers. He berated the UN and the UK for not "respected the Pacific wish to see proper democracy operating throughout the whole region. " Proper democracy? Ever a one for claiming he speaks on behalf of the average New Zealander, he's now doing the same for Pacific Islanders, including the Melanesian Spearhead Group that has expressed support for the Bainimarama Government and its roadmap to a more "proper democracy" than existed in Fiji under previous governments.
Phil Goff's intentions are honorable although he has blind spots on other situations such as West Papua where abuses of human rights are far worse than Fiji. But he should not pre-judge the situation and assume the brutal attack was anything more that what it probably was: a group of security or corrections officers taking the law into their own hands and punishing two escaped prisoners that is now being investigated by the Fiji Police.
There was nothing political in the beatings, or even anything new other than the video record. When I was living in Fiji, my wife's jewellery was stolen. The police asked us for possible suspects. We mentioned a young boy who had been painting the house and asked he not be beaten. We saw him the next day covered in bruises. Butaraki (an arbitrary beating) is part of traditional iTaukei culture. It will not be eliminated overnight. See Graham Davis's post, Tackling a Culture of Violence.
It is still not clear who the perpetrators were other than "security" people. They were not the army or the police but were either corrections (prison) officers or private security people. They were not acting on the instructions of the government or the police whose commissioner condemned the violence and promised a full investigation that is now proceeding.
Phil Goff's motion in Parliament should recognize these facts. It should be worded moderately without pointing the finger at the Fiji Government, commend the Fiji police investigation, and not seek to make political capital out of the event. Both he and Winston Peters have an eye on Pacific Island voters in NZ, and Goff is known to associate with anti-Bainimarama lobby groups, mainly ethnic Fijians, in Auckland and Wellington. He is only hearing one side of the story about what is happening in Fiji.
The proper response in Fiji was made by the Police Commissioner Ioane Naivalurua who said everyone in Fiji was “disturbed to see the video that has emerged of what appears to be the abuse of two men who, at this stage, we understand to be recaptured prisoners ... A thorough investigation to establish the circumstances of this incident has been ordered." It should have been left at that: an expression of deep concern and a clear indication that the perpetrators would be dealt with."
But no. The PM agreed to be interviewed by Fiji Village and immediately undermined the announcement of the Police Commissioner. He did not condemn the beating and could be thought to approve it. Instead, he commended the work of the security in recapturing escaped prisoners, referring to the group last year that went on a rampage around Suva before being recaptured. He seemed to think that this action justified the later incident captured on the video. All he did to criticize those doing the beating was to say that others were "saying excessive force has been used [but] people should know that the security personnel work hard to protect the citizens of Fiji from hardened criminals."
This is all very well but what the public should have been told is that this was an appalling human rights abuse and it needs to be recognized as such. No ifs, buts or maybes.
By not commenting directly, the PM left himself —and his government— wide open to accusations that he supported the violence.
He mentioned the use of cellphones by prisoners communicating with criminal elements outside prison, and said the "Commissioner of Prisons has his work cut out for him.” The PM could have gone on to report on what progress has been made to stop cellphones being used to communicate between Naboro prison and organized criminal groups outside the prison. We know the security forces work hard; we know there are hardened and well organized criminals. We also know that Commissioner Naivalurua has constantly called on the police to lift standards, but despite this prisoners continue to escape — and at least some of them are beaten. The PM said investigations will be held but as the head of the government and the person responsible for the security of the nation, he has made it clear that he stands by the security personnel."
What sort of message is this, Prime Minister? It is recognized that Government, like any other government, needs to be confident of the full support of the security forces. But your job, Prime Minister, is to protect the institution by condemning the actions of some officers whose actions have smirched its reputation and undermined its credibility. You must separate the wheat from the chaff.
I am appalled that you said: “At the end of the day, I will stick by my men, by the police officers or anyone else that might be named in this investigation. We cannot discard them just because they’ve done their duty in looking after the security of this nation and making sure we sleep peacefully at night.”
Discard them for doing their duty? They should be named, charged and, if found guilty, fined or imprisoned and dismissed from government employment. Send this message out once, loud and clear, Prime Minister, and I think all of Fiji will applaud you.
The call for common justice has not come solely, as you seem to believe, Prime Minister, from the NGOs that you denigrate by saying they are "paid by the international community to jump up and down every time we do something. That’s their job, they’re paid to do that by the people that fund them."
With respect, Prime Minister, this is nonsense. Almost all NGOs in Fiji are supported by overseas funding but of these only a small cluster have consistently opposed your government, and I suspect this has been as much for a mix of personal and principled reasons as it has been because funding comes from overseas. The call for action on the violence shown in the videos comes from ordinary Fijians and ordinary people living outside Fiji. They may not understand the circumstances but no normal human being could be anything but appalled by the video. It was your job to quench the flames. You did not do so.
Having criticized the limitations of Phil Goff, the PM and others in their reactions to this beating incident, I remind readers of the need to maintain perspectives. This is not the general state of affairs in Fiji. The beating was an incident. It was not political. It was not initiated by the Fiji Government. It was little different from other beatings carried out during the tenure of previous governments. The incident is being investigated. And, by and large, most things are moving forward, with the now expected ups and downs, towards a better Fiji after the elections in 2014.