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The Importance of Independence Documents and Constitutions

Last week I read an interesting article on the BBC website about Fiji’s independence from the UK.  Apparently, the order that granted that status on October 10, 1970, has been lost.  Well, the original anyway.  The National Archives in Fiji was able to obtain a copy of the document from the UK National Archives having finally given up on finding the original after searching through government records for the last five years.

The article noted that, while the document is important symbolically, the loss of the original order doesn’t affect Fiji’s independence:  “In the same way that losing your birth certificate does not mean you cease to exist, the legitimacy of a state does not rest on a piece of paper.”

There were other important documents produced in 1970 that contributed to the establishment of Fiji as an independent country: the UK parliament passed the Fiji Independence Act 1970, and Fiji’s first constitution as an independent nation was enacted and attached to the independence order following a Constitutional Conference report.  I say “first” because Fiji has had two more constitutions since then and, at this time, the constitution that was put in place in 1997 is not being applied at all – it was abrogated in April last year after the Fiji Court of Appeal declared a 2006 coup and the resulting interim government to be unlawful under the constitution.  The President responded by issuing decrees and statements that declared the 1997 constitution to be revoked as well as firing all the judges.

Fiji’s constitutional and political situation since it obtained independence forty years ago has been very complex.  Here’s an attempt at a brief summary:

The original constitution was abrogated following two coups in 1987, and a new one was adopted in 1990 (which included making Fiji a republic).  That second constitution gave rise to concerns, however, due to its preferential treatment of indigenous Fijians who were allocated a majority of the seats in parliament as well as the position of Prime Minister.  Indo-Fijians – the other main ethnic group in Fiji, comprising nearly half of the population – argued that they should have equal rights to representation.  This debate led to another constitution being enacted in 1997 that removed the guaranteed majority representation for indigenous Fijians, but included provisions relating to indigenous land ownership.  However, it was seen by some as not adequately protecting indigenous rights.  Elections were held under the new constitution, but the (Indo-Fijian led) government was overthrown by another coup in 2000, and the 1997 constitution was abrogated.  Subsequently, however, the High Court and Court of Appeal reinstated the constitution and new elections were held in 2001.  After increasing tension between the government and military leaders, Commodore Bainimarama led a coup in 2006 and soon after was appointed to the role of interim Prime Minister by the President.  He was then reappointed and sworn in following the April decrees of last year.

Commodore Bainimarama has said that a new constitution that entrenches “common and equal citizenry” will be developed in 2012, with elections to be held in 2014  – much to the concern of other nations, particularly New Zealand and Australia, and also the U.S., who are of the view that a return to democracy should occur much sooner.  Since 2006, sanctions have been applied, diplomats have been expelled, and Fiji has been suspended from the Commonwealth.  No one questions that Fiji is an independent country, even if it has lost the document that says it is, but the absence of (or lack of adherence to) any clear constitutional arrangements that limit the powers of the government is an issue that is certainly not being ignored.

One Comment

  1. Jonathan Todd
    October 28, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    This post provided an interesting look into the history of Fiji, but did not really stay true to its title. As I was reading I kept expecting the author to tell me why the original document was important and the only reason that I came away with is so that the country can avoid the embarrassment of having to ask another country for a copy.

    If anything, the article seems to suggest that the document itself isn’t all that important, which is a strange thing for the Library of Congress to suggest. I realize that it is the spirit of the document that is ultimately the most important, but I still think that there is something to be said for having the original document. In my opinion, having the original document adds some force and importance to the text within. I would not necessarily argue that the political situation would be any different if Fiji still had the original document, but perhaps if little more respect was given to artifacts of history, the people of Fiji could have a little more respect for the Nation founded by those documents, and it turn the principles of government upon which it began its independence.

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