Last edited: February 10, 2005

Gay Marriage Row Becomes Power Struggle

The Australian, February 26, 2000
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By South Pacific correspondent Mary-Louise O’Callaghan

An attempt to bar same-sex marriages in Fiji has escalated into a row over whether the Government is trying to tamper with the country’s new constitution for its own political purposes.

Fiji’s Human Rights Commission has urged the Chaudhry Government to withdraw a proposed amendment to the constitution that provides for the prosecution of unnatural offences and makes gay marriages unconstitutional. The Government says the amendment clarifies the state’s position on homosexual rights, which has come under pressure from Fiji’s biggest and most conservative churches. They have objected to the 1998 constitution’s human rights clause, which makes it an offence to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The amendment also proposes changes to the sensitive section that deals with the basis upon which the president can act, and upon whose advice.

There are fears that this could be used to alter other sensitive sections of the constitution, an issue debated heatedly in parliament this week.

The amendment bill has been referred to a committee before its second reading, after the Opposition called for a division and the Government found it did not have the numbers to force it through.

Racial and political tensions in the South Pacific island state, where indigenous Fijians have only outnumbered ethnic-Indians in the past few years, have been finely balanced since the election of the country’s first ethno-Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, last year.

His predecessor, Sitiveni Rabuka, warned this week that the proposed bill could erode the protection of indigenous rights enshrined in the 1998 constitution.

"This government must remember that there is an indigenous race, an indigenous claim to customary usage and ownership of Fijian land," he said. Now the chairman of the country’s Great Council of Chiefs, Major-General Rabuka carried out two coups in 1987 in the name of indigenous rights.

However, during his subsequent seven years as prime minister, he was instrumental in the adoption of a more racially equitable constitution.

Mr Chaudhry heads the first government elected under this constitution and Major-General Rabuka, who conceded defeat gracefully last May, has previously urged the nation to give the new government a chance. But his decision to speak out against the proposed bill represents a significant departure from this.

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