Racism And Wilful Forgetfulness
The vitriolic diatribe that the Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other offices in Geneva Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan has been subjected to for a principled intervention that Fiji made against institutionalised racism and the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission for its presence and participation at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva necessitates a response.
While Fiji made a number of substantial interventions premised on principles of non-discrimination, human dignity and substantive equality spanning from social and economic rights to civil and political rights such as the rights of persons with disabilities with a particular focus on Article 5 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, protection of the rights of children in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Fiji’s commitment towards the ratification of all core human rights instruments by 2020 and its presidency over the United Nations Conference on Climate Change COP23, the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, the inexorable relationship between human rights and peace, the abolishment of death penalty, the impact of climate change on the rights of children and the incorporation of human rights education into the school curriculum in response to Fiji’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and access to medicine as one of the fundamental elements of the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the polemicists have strategically and exclusively focused on racism.
So what exactly did the Ambassador say about racism that has riled the NFP, SODELPA, Wadan Narsey, self-selected moral entrepreneurs and arm chair critics? “It must be noted”, the Ambassador said, “that racism was institutionalised in Fiji to such an extent that it instilled in a privileged class a sense of entitlement based on ethnicity and CLASS, and that racist attitudes were engrained in all communities, which have resulted in mistrust, resentment and suspicion”.
The Ambassador never used the word “caste” as has been reported by the NFP and SODELPA and uncritically reproduced by the Fiji Times, Radio New Zealand and the ABC amongst various other social media platforms. She actually used the word “class”.
This begs the question, is the NFP and its leadership deliberately encouraging the conflagration of communalism given that the word “caste” has a particular historical and sociological resonance with the Indo-Fijian community?
One does not need a doctorate in sociology to appreciate the political purchase of the term caste or indeed need such a credential to condemn racism!
The string of racist, sexist and bigoted comments following the NFPs post on Facebook is a sad indictment of the fact that racism and prejudice is alive and thriving.
Extremely derogatory things have been said and continue to be said about the Ambassadors ethnicity, her gender, and her religion and the NFP did not even once intervene in the barrage of these attacks which are simply unconstitutional.
Not only did they selectively focus on the issue of racism, they also deliberately distorted what was said about racism to suite their own political agenda.
The Ambassador never apportioned the charge of racism to a single community. She actually said “…racist attitudes were engrained in all communities”. The following statement that Wadan Narsey so casually and conveniently dismissed is a testament to that:
“Fiji has embarked on a path of substantive equality and this path requires a level of gender, disability and cultural competence and the ability to understand that poverty and disadvantage exists in all cultural groups”.
So is it not obvious then that it is precisely these detractors who are reproducing a racist epistemology to give credence to their own political agenda?
Their vitriol raises fundamental questions about whether a non-indigenous can speak on indigenous issues. It is also a sad indictment of the fact that Fiji has yet to learn to speak meaningfully about race without descending into racism.
Incidentally, in reiterating Government’s priority in light of Fiji’s presidency over the United Nations Conference on Climate Change COP23 and underscoring the inextricable relationship between climate change and human rights and in particular recognising the specific vulnerabilities of women, children and persons suffering from disabilities in disasters and climate change induced movement, the Ambassador had adduced the significance of ensuring that “natural relocation policy is sensitive to indigenous rights in ensuring that the rights of the iTaukei to use land, food security including the protection of cultural rights, customary fishing rights and safeguarding of traditional grave sites are protected”.
So why did the NFP, SODELPA and Wadan Narsey not make any reference to these subsequent paragraphs appearing immediately after the paragraph that the NFP deliberately misquoted, SODELPA, the Fiji Times, Radio New Zealand, ABC reproduced and Wadan Narsey once again conveniently glossed?
Your guess is as good as mine!
So are the Ambassador and the Fijian Government really complicit in the erosion of indigenous rights and the distortion of the concerns of the iTaukei at the UN as has been intimated or are her interventions an affront to the political elite that have profited from racism in the last three decades?
Her interventions affirm the intersectional nature of indigenous community’s human rights concerns that affect the ordinary iTaukei in Fiji as opposed to the obsession with political preponderance unabashedly lampooned as an affirmation of indigenous rights. Are these human rights costs of climate change to our iTaukei any less pressing because it has been conveyed to the world on behalf of Fiji by a woman, a Muslim and an Indo-Fijian?
The Ambassadors allusion to the creation of a privileged class as a result of institutionalised racism is about the complicity between the political elite across the racial divide in which the only people who suffered were the marginalised. To those who are suffering from social amnesia or wilful forgetfulness, here is the legacy of institutionalised racism in Fiji:
The politicisation of the sugar industry by the political elite of both major ethnic communities and the consequent non-renewal of cane leases, displacement, social death and poverty accentuating existing class polarities not only between but within communities;
An electoral system premised on ethnicity that entrenched racial compartmentalisation;
The exploitation of non-unionised workers mostly iTaukei and Indo-Fijian women, in tax free zones established to arrest Fiji from the economic malaise following the 1987 coup;
Social justice initiatives such as the enactment of the Social Justice Act 2001 and the implementation of the 2020 Affirmative Action Plan which were contrary to Section 44 (1) of the 1997 Constitution which mandated the design of programmes to achieve equality for all groups or categories of persons who are disadvantaged and therefore deprived of access to education and training, land and housing and participation in commerce and in all levels and branches of service of the state;
Discrimination in the education sector as evidenced in the selection criteria for scholarships. Not only were Indo-Fijians deprived of equal opportunity, the requirements for a Fijian Affairs Board (FAB) scholarship also precluded children that were not registered under the Vola Ni Kawa Bula (VKB). Furthermore,the applicant had to have paternal lineage if she or he were a Rotuman effectively depriving any child who had maternal lineage to iTaukei but paternal lineage to any other race;
Not only were Indo-Fijian farmers rendered landless because of institutionalised racism, both the SVT in the 1990s and the SDL after coming into power in 2001 introduced policies that surreptitiously and permanently alienated the iTaukei from their customary land through the conversion of iTaukei land into freehold land. A damning example is the Momi Bay;
Accumulation in the hands of a few in the name of indigenous capitalism to at least putatively bridge the gap between Indo-Fijians and iTaukei. The unlawful allotment of Fijian Holdings Limited shares by Laisenia Qarase who was the Director of Fijian Holdings Limited and a Financial Advisor to the Fijian Affairs Board and the Great Council of Chiefs after all prioritised immediate family members over the provincial, Tikina Councils and eligible iTaukei people;
The introduction of the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill and the Qoliqoli Bill not only deprived Indo-Fijians from ownership and access to land and ocean, but precluded the iTaukei community as well;
The unequal distribution of lease money and the introduction of goodwill payment over lease renewals.
Is the coalition of detractors denying that Fiji has a history of institutionalised racism? Erasing the ignominy of racism from our public memory will require the courage of conviction to confront this history. Will we speak up against racism and structural inequality again? Absolutely and unabashedly.