Gay Marriage Row Becomes Power Struggle
February 26, 2000
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By South Pacific correspondent Mary-Louise OCallaghan
An attempt to bar same-sex marriages in Fiji has escalated into a row over whether the
Government is trying to tamper with the countrys new constitution for its own
Fijis 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 states position on homosexual rights, which has come under pressure
from Fijis biggest and most conservative churches. They have objected to the 1998
constitutions 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 countrys 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 countrys 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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