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Is it Time for the Pacific to Adopt a Regional Human Rights Institution?

Katherine Flint | South Pacific Fellow

Image credit: United Nations via Flickr.

Since 2009, the Pacific Islands has been the only region without a dedicated human rights institution. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the prevailing regional sentiment that Pacific cultures and human rights conflict. Throughout Oceania, where family bonds run deep and collective wellbeing is paramount, notions of individual rights can feel like a foreign concept, a disruption to the harmony of Pacific notions of family. And for those who experienced colonialism under such slogans as ‘humanity’ and ‘civilisation’, the phrase ‘human rights’ may appear as nothing more than another charming slogan by which Western powers rationalise their own agendas.


However, the Pacific has a rich cultural and historical heritage that draws upon many of the same values which underpin human rights treaties: equality, respect, dignity, security. Embedded within Fiji’s cultural fabric, for example, are values of veirokovi (respect), veidokai (honour), and veilomani (care). The Samoan way of life, fa’asamoa, is woven together by values including feavaa’i (mutual respect), alofa (love), and fepuipuia’i (mutual protection). Nauruans hold space for the welfare of the most vulnerable members of society, espousing ereduet engob (respect for elders) and rangaet eoning (protection of children). In Palau, odekial a reng denotes unity, literally translating as ‘a combining of hearts’.


In many ways, human rights, too, require a combining of hearts – a collective effort driven by compassion and understanding to uphold the rights of all. While the creation of a Pacific human rights institution should not be pursued merely for the sake of conformity, its current absence cannot be taken to signify an absence of human rights challenges themselves.


For example, rates of violence against women and girls in the Pacific are amongst the highest in the world, while Pacific women have the lowest representation in national and local parliaments worldwide. Meanwhile, people with disabilities are overrepresented among those living in poverty and underrepresented in social, economic, and public life. In some nations, police officers have been dubbed ‘criminals in uniform,’ alluding to cultures of corruption and brutality in law enforcement. And across all Pacific states, climate change and rising sea levels have curtailed Pacific peoples’ rights to adequate housing, health, food, water, and even life – climate change is already responsible for 400 000 premature deaths each year.


Amidst this array of human rights challenges, the need for change has become strikingly evident. A regional human rights commission, constructed by Pacific peoples for Pacific peoples, may deliver progress on several fronts.


One appeal of a regional commission is the fact that it will provide a service currently unavailable in most Pacific countries. At present, only Fiji, Samoa, and Tuvalu have established National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). Responsible for assisting individuals (through complaints handling or legal assistance), monitoring the human rights situation on the ground, and advising parliament on compliance with human rights treaties, NHRIs deliver significant advances in protecting human rights. However, owing to resource constraints in many Pacific states – some of the world’s smallest nations – the establishment of NHRIs has been limited. A regional commission would address this gap by pooling resources and expertise, thereby extending the reach of human rights protection to countries where NHRIs are absent.


Another benefit to a regional human rights commission is its potential to provide practical support to regional initiatives. For example, in 2023, the Pacific adopted the Revitalised Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration, building off a similar declaration made in 2012. The Declaration calls for ‘stronger measures to improve strategic resourcing, monitoring and reporting on progress through the collection, collation and analysis of high-quality quantitative and qualitative disaggregated gender and disability inclusive data’ – although lacks an institutional framework to do so. A regional human rights commission would be well placed to take on this work. The Pacific’s 2050 Strategy may also be assisted by a commission conducting data collection and monitoring assistance, alongside promotional and educational functions.


Perhaps most importantly, though, a Pacific human rights body may bring the realisation of universal human rights standards closer to home. The UN has encouraged the establishment of regional human rights mechanisms because they are able to take better account of regional cultures and conditions, in turn yielding better results. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in 2018, tackling human rights ‘does not have to mean destroying a culture. Culture is not a fossil hardened into bitterness and rigidity. Cultures are strong when they are renewable – when they recognise and resolve justice’.


As noted, Pacific cultures may lend themselves to human rights principles in unique and constructive ways. Indeed, several communities are already incorporating Pacific cultural values to achieve human rights progress – work that could be amplified at the regional level. For example, New Zealand’s Tongan Working Group has highlighted principles present in anga faka-Tonga (Tongan culture) to empower Tongan families to take responsibility for preventing and ending family violence. Based on fofola a fala kae talanoa e kāinga – a widely used Tongan metaphor translating as ‘roll out the mats so the family can dialogue’ – the practice is unique to the beliefs and practices of Tongan people. Initiatives such as these showcase the potential to harness Pacific cultural values to advocate for human rights in ways that are embraced by everyday people.


Ultimately, a Pacific human rights institution must honour the dignity and aspirations of all who call the Pacific their home. With various human rights challenges facing the Pacific, a regional human rights institution may be the forum needed to promote inclusive dialogue and ensure human rights progress resonates deeply within Pacific communities. In other words – to roll out the mats so the Pacific family can dialogue.


Katherine is the South Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is a fifth-year Law and International Relations student at the Australian National University. 


As a New Colombo Plan Scholar for Singapore and Fiji, Katherine worked with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and Fiji Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission. This experience immersed her in a unique perspective that has become an invaluable asset to her approach to international affairs.  


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