Call for rights watch in Pacific - by Jonathan Pearlman, Foreign Affairs Correspondent


THE Pacific Islands should set up a regional human rights body to help reverse decades of poor governance and improve safeguards for women and children, a leading Pacific rights group has recommended.

In a submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry, the Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team says human rights violations in the region are "very rarely" reported.

Individual states do not have the capacity to run their own human rights bodies and should band together to form a body that could monitor compliance and eventually investigate violations, it says.

"For all human rights to advance significantly in the region there needs to be a regional body to access information and for individuals to access justice," the submission says.

"Prolonged periods of poor governance and disappointing economic growth combined with limited access to resources, a breakdown in traditional systems, political tensions and lack of opportunities have had negative social impacts across the region Continued ignorance and inattention to basic human rights will perpetuate poverty."

The Pacific states are one of the last remaining regions in the world without a mechanism for protecting and monitoring human rights and have only one national human rights institution - the widely discredited Fiji Human Rights Commission. A push in the 1980s to set up a regional body failed largely because of concerns about the imposition of Western values and fears that a regional grouping would be dominated by Australia and New Zealand.

The resource team, which is based in Fiji and works across eight Pacific countries, says regional leaders have recently expressed growing support for a human rights body, including calls in the past two years by members of parliaments, judicial officers and non-government organisations. Australia might be expected to provide training and resources for a commission but would not be a member.

"Unlike the 1980s when the call was identified more with interest and persons considered to be outsiders to the Pacific region, the call this time around has been made by Pacific people and institutions from within the Pacific," it says. " There has been a gradual thawing of hostility towards the notion of human rights [in the region] and a gradual appreciation of it over the years."

The growing support for an umbrella human rights body also highlights a shift towards co-operation in the Pacific - a shift that has been accelerated in the past decade by fears about the impact of climate change.

The United Nations has listed a range of human rights concerns in the region, including violence against women and children, judicial corruption, racial discrimination and treatment of prisoners.

The inquiry into human rights mechanisms and the Asia-Pacific is being conducted by Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

© 1998 University of the South Pacific

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