Between principle and process: debating constitution-making in Fiji

On Wednesday 24th April, Minority Rights Group International and the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum launched a report on the challenges and opportunities of diversity in Fiji ( I wish there were something new in this report to, well, report that we don’t already know regarding these issues, as well as the attitudes attached to them and the structures undergirding them.

In view of the report’s predictability, what emerged during Wednesday’s discussion at the London School of Economics was that it is the support act to a more fundamental ambition: that of calling the present military-installed and -led government of Fiji to task for abrogating due process… or at least the process it self-identified as part of the roadmap for Fiji’s return to democratic electoral politics.

So, while Minority Rights Group International and the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum purport to engage with the issues it regards as the beating heart of the Fiji Government’s (hereafter “FG”) draft constitution – moving beyond the ethnic paradigm in governance, representation and community relations (p2) – the real message conveyed at the event was that process must trump principle in the shaping of Fiji’s future.

In the report, MRG’s Head of Conflict Prevention, Chris Chapman, applauds the “revolutionary” intent of the Ghai draft constitution provisions relating to improving ethnic relations, tackling ethnically-biased policies and increasing government accountability (p2) – all of them, broadly speaking, emerging from the FG’s own non-negotiable principles (see p17), for which it ought to be credited, no?

Notwithstanding the numerous decrees and restrictions synonymous with miltary rule – and not for one monent defending these as conscionably correct – it remains the case that the FG draft constitution equals the Ghai version in calling for a shared citizenhip label, in enunciating government’s reponsibility to assist all who are in need of assistance, and in stating unequivocally that government is accountable to the people when it fails to deliver access to basic resources like education, a living wage and local infrastructure. These were part of the non-negotiables laid out by the FG in its brief to the Ghai-led Constitution Commission, and as such the FG is the progenitor of those aspects for which the Ghai draft is being lauded.

What is revolutionary about the Ghai draft isn’t the provisions singled out by Chapman, since these were part of its remit, but the language and symbolism in which these provisions were couched. I’ve referred in another post (Fiji rides the constitutional carousel… again [Part 1]) to the fantastic feat of cultural sensitivity that Ghai pulled off, and there’s a maturity and knack in being able to simultaneously enshrine ethnic diversity and retreat from the logic of ethnic identity politics as a practicable foundation for future national development – Chapman calls it an “impassioned, poetic plea” while I call it a wonderfully self-conscious act of kerekere.

The issue, though, is about much more than misplaced credit accruing from the fact that Ghai knows how to soften the blow of a constitution intended to be the foundation for a post-ethnic Fiji society while the FG clearly can’t be bothered with such niceties. No, the issue is about conforming to the de-legitimisation of military rule as a necessarily bad thing because – gasp! – the miltary overlords have diverted from the procedures and processes they themselves put in place. But as a rule, if you’re on the right side of the barrel of a gun, power and the power to decide what happens next is your prerogative.

And this, above all, is what CSOs – and the Commonwealth – seem to find most disagreeable about the FG, the waterfall of decrees and human rights abuses notwithstanding. Hence, the report’s recommendation that the FG reinstate the Ghai draft constitution and submit it to the participatory process entailed by a Constituent Assembly.

But will a participatory process light the path to an uncontested constitutional future given the strength of division evidenced in the Naidu-led survey research, between those who welcome equal citizenship and those who construe this and other provisions as anti-indigenous, forgetting for one moment those who may favour recognition of belonging to Fiji but fear the retribution that will likely be directed at them if this becomes law?

Participatory politics is predicated on the principle of being able to articulate indignation, as was the case of the Occupy movement (, not necesarily in articulating a shared and common Idea, which is what we putatively attribute as a function of the Constituent Assembly that never was. What does Fiji have to gain by raising the spectre of this body – whose composition was to have been decided by the FG anyway, and applicants to which form part of the elite layer of Fiji society involved in directing the country’s ethnopolitical landscape these past decades?

And suppose a Constituent Asembly were to find in favour of the Ghai draft constitution – where would this leave the indigenous Fijian and their ‘disquiet’? The MRG/CCF report recommendations are peculiarly silent on this issue, leaving one to suspect – as if you hadn’t already guessed it – that CSO critiques of the FG are embedded not in disagreement about fundamental principles of equality and government accountability but about the breakdown in process on the way to achieving these principles.

What is missing from the debate is whether multicultural democracy, itself far from perfectly practised in Western Europe, is an Idea too far for complex postcolonial societies like Fiji? In a way, Chapman answers this question when he says that constitution-making is like an act of conflict-resolution. Perhaps the guiding principle of constitutionalism is not to act as a paean to all discontent, but to negotiate a path through that discontent while symbolically reassuring the people that their articulations have been heard and have been considered, though not perhaps acted upon.

The promised post exploring the relevance of consitutionalism – and what that should look like – outside Europe will appear in a few weeks’ time. The next post will likely analyse the MRG/CCF report “Fiji: the challenges and opportunities of diversity”, which can be accessed from the Minority Rights Group International website


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