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19 Nov 2019

Interview: Louchrisha Hussein, Citizen’s Constitutional Forum, Fiji.

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BHRRC: In what ways are you and CCF working on business and human rights issues in Fiji?

We work with local communities, advocating around the concept of human rights. The concept of business and human rights is relatively new.

BHRRC: What types of Business & Human Rights issues are you seeing in Fiji? What are the main Business & Human Rights cases currently unfolding in Fiji?

For Fiji, there's the issue of communities not being properly consulted by mining companies. Free prior and informed consent is often not obtained properly, especially where the issue of Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) is concerned. Contracts may not be followed thoroughly, resulting in damage to the environment. We have had a few cases recently where contractors have gone beyond their contractual legal boundaries. This then leads to environmental destruction, and to loss of livelihood or reduced food security.

In some cases, displacement happens when extractive industries destroy natural barriers to things like tsunamis. With Cyclone Winston, a few communities were affected by king tides that completely destroyed homes and the vegetation. Communities were forced to relocate to higher grounds or entirely new places. People don’t want to leave because of their memories, culture and tradition, or they have burial grounds there where they've had ancestors that have buried there. Displacements can be devastating.

With black sand mining in Fiji, women going crab hunting have been finding that the quantity and sizes of crabs have been decreasing where there is mining. It's affecting food security for the people in the area. Waste is also being dumped into the ecosystem, which affects the wells where people’s water comes from. This then affects access to clean drinking water, and it creates additional problems, such as waterborne diseases. Numerous communities have these sorts of issues with extractive industries. It raises all sorts of questions —how are they being dealt with? Is everything being properly documented? Do they have good water security?

The Mololo case is a significant current case in Fiji - it involves the development of a resort. It's one of the biggest resorts in Fiji and will feature bungalows that sit above the water. What has happened is that they have dug beyond where they were contractually entitled; they dredged out more of the reef than they should have. The environmental damage there is really bad. The communities around there depend on the ocean for food; all of that has been affected. It's really sad to see—the natural environment being damaged like that, with no sense of respect for those that depend on the environment to survive.

BHRRC: What are the most common sectors where you find human rights challenges arising from business activities?

Extractives and construction.  There's a lot of money there so they can afford to have numerous development projects around the country - in communities and in the city.

We need to research and monitor corruption carefully. When you look at some of the projects, a lot of things are questionable. To take another example: where our office is located, there's a skyscraper building that's going up. It is actually going to be the largest building in the region. But there's a school right beside it, and the neighbouring school noticed that the building is going beyond what was agreed. The association that the school belongs to went to seek legal redress, and there was a stop order , but then they started constructing again, and now it's almost completed. I think the only thing that's getting these contractors to listen, or to stop, is either when court orders are involved, or media coverage exposes them.

BHRRC: What are awareness levels of Business & Human Rights and UN Guiding Principles like amongst  local communities and advocates in Fiji? Is there a need for training on rights and responsibilities in the area of Business & Human Rights?

There’s little to no awareness of business and human rights or the UN Guiding Principles. Some of our local civil society organizations have had initial contact with business and human rights, but there's definitely a need for greater training around responsibilities of all stakeholders in the area of business and human rights. We feel the need to have inclusiveness, with the private sector also in the room—whether as a part of the trainings or as a separate dialogue with civil society communities that are affected by these development projects. The private sector is part of this conversation.

BHRRC: Are local people being listened to by companies active in the region? If not, what needs to change?

For Fiji, we feel that companies running development projects don't listen enough, or they're very selective of who they listen to. They only seem to stop and pay attention when the courts get involved. For instance, in the Mololo case, and—the skyscraper building that's happening—both of them have had court stop orders issued. Companies need to adopt business and human rights principles before commencing operations. This is where civil society organizations can play a facilitation role for government and businesses and perhaps communities too so that there is dialogue with all the stakeholders.

BHRRC: Can you tell us more about the Business & Human Rights Civil Society Network established earlier this year in Suva? How does this work? What role is it performing?

It's a network that came out of the business in human rights training in Suva. It aims to operate like a solidarity network, and also for advocates  to bring to light the human rights violations that are happening in their own communities. It's a network to support advocates working on business human rights issues throughout the region.

BHRRC: How are you approaching these issues and those businesses involved, what are your strategies – what has worked well?

We have a community engagement program with a specific curriculum that looks at human rights approach to development. This looks at advocacy trainings, talking about the legislative framework in which land or the environment is managed. We help communities prioritize needs  like access to clean drinking water. Participants also bring up issues—how climate change is affecting their food produce or water security or the like.

Through our community engagement program, we really stress the need for consultative processes. Development is everybody's business. It's not just having the men in the room—it's having the women and the youth there to also be a part of that process, so that it's an owned one.

 If you see human rights violations caused by businesses in your part of the world, you have a responsibility to speak up. You have a responsibility to explore avenues for bringing the case to light, and for seeking redress if human rights violations do occur. Development is everybody's business. It's not just the community affected by it; it's everybody's business.

BHRRC: What challenges have you faced in your work, how are you seeking to overcome them? What part do factors like communications and remoteness play in creating difficulties?

We've had instances where people have presented documentation and records of human rights violations happening in the community, but when they challenge the idea of community development as something that benefits everyone, they are labelled anti-development.

The local media companies don’t cover local development and human rights issues comprehensively; they piggy back on the international coverage. It is really worrying that local media rely so heavily on international media to pick up important business and human rights stories. The local media really should be doing this, especially since for us there's a general lack of resources to document and record abuses otherwise. Reaching out to relevant stakeholders that can help people costs money, and you need to be able to cover communication costs to be able to do that.

Where we can offer spaces for people to raise concerns without being labelled anti-development, we like to look at processes and try to ensure that there's a balance of women in the room—women, youth and men. In Fiji, a lot of decision-making spaces, say 20 years ago, would only have had men present. We're trying to promote an inclusive space, when we have women talking about how their daily duties are affected. For example, agreeing to development that affects women going out to look for crabs for personal consumption or to sell to a living.

Corruption and nepotism are also problems. We suspect there have been instances where companies pay somebody off to give them a good Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. This begs the question as to whether other developments have too. We suspect certain companies have had favourable treatment, particularly in cases where the EIA has not been made available publicly, or where there has been inadequately obtained consent. Without adequate informed consent of local communities, the EIAs might as well be rubber stamped.

BHRRC: What needs to happen, in your opinion, for business and human rights issues in Fiji to be successfully resolved?

Independent EIA processes need to be established and managed by independent institutions. Free prior informed consent processes need to be encouraged, and those processes need to be completed before development takes place. A multi-stakeholder approach needs to involve not just government and the private sector, but also local communities. The process needs to thoroughly examine how everyone is affected.

BHRRC: What can be done by those reading this interview; is there any way in which the international community can help?

International solidarity would help to continue to amplify cases of business-related human rights violations here in Fiji and across the region. If there's consistency in bringing up these cases, that will put pressure on our government and private companies to act and correct violations.