How committed is Vanuatu to safeguarding human rights without a Ministry of Justice and Community Services?
Since late 2021, local NGO Sista has been conducting an investigation into a set of interrelated government decisions that we have identified as crucial to the future of Vanuatu.
The purpose of the investigation is to promote clarity and transparency in government decision-making, and to encourage open and free public dialogue on key issues that affect us all as citizens. The result is four articles to be released in the coming weeks.
This final article focuses on the implications of dismantling the Ministry of Justice and Community Services for the future of Vanuatu. As a Ministry, it not only houses a large number of agencies within the justice system, it also provides key support services for ensuring human rights and equality. Removing this Ministry leaves a big question – how committed is Vanuatu to ensuring it’s people have justice, dignity, safety and respect?
Vanuatu Association of NGOs and Transparency International Vanuatu have expressed their support to stand in solidarity with Sista to conduct this investigation.
Quick decision making of national interests with little transparency and minimal consultation with the people is typical ‘fasin’ in Vanuatu’s politics. So are motions of no confidence, coalition changes, ‘crossing the floor’ to switch parties and increased allowances for members of parliament.
The use of the public sphere as a political playground is conducted in the backdrop of poorly built roads, lack of quality public infrastructure, unpaid teachers’ salaries and general misuse of public funds to support the political games of the week.
As of September 2022 we are gearing up for a national election, costing an estimated (and unbudgeted for) 100 million vatu, after a motion of confidence was thwarted by the dissolution of parliament from our new President. While we watch this latest political tension unfold, we are still waiting to see a work plan to understand how we will restructure the Ministry of Justice and Community Services into a Ministry of Oceans, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs.
Waiting is something that the people of Vanuatu are expected to do. Whether it’s waiting for a passport to be printed out, services to reach an island or for a decision of national interest to be finalised – we wait and we rarely act out. While social media has given citizens a platform to air our grievances in a public space, Ni-Vanuatu are not the type to march the streets inciting unrest and demanding accountability. We truly believe ‘respect is honourable’ and the ‘big man-smol man’ mentality keeps us in check should we even consider speaking out against the system.
But how long will this system hold out for in the 21st century?
It is no secret that men dominate the political system in Vanuatu. This backdates to when we gained Independence 42 years ago, with chiefs selected to represent their people as members of parliament. While status is still revered, so is the ability to use incentives to secure voters rather than principles and policies. This practice of ‘negotiating deals’ is so normalised in all levels of the political system, the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office was so confident in telling the Sista team that the main reason why the Ministry of Justice was selected out of all the 13 ministries to be dismantled was that it’s easier to restructure that specific ministry given the government’s party coalition agreements.
Isn’t it easier to expand the Department of Fisheries, which sits under the Ministry of Agriculture? Or perhaps dismantle the smaller ministries that have only a couple of departments? The Sista team had hoped that it would at least emphasise how this new Ministry of Oceans would safeguard our ocean and marine life to align with Vanuatu’s stance on climate change and environmental conservation. Instead the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office highlighted how the new ministry would bring economic benefits through fishing and potentially deep sea mining.
He did reassure us that it’s not about reducing the importance of any department or statutory body that currently falls under the Ministry of Justice and Community Services. In his view, they have their own internal mandates that separate them, and under the proposed changes they are just relocating their functions to a more appropriate Ministry. He also personally didn’t believe there would be any disturbances to the work, or relationships amongst the various departments and statutory bodies, due to the proposed reshuffle.
A Director General from another Ministry (wishing to remain anonymous) further added that it’s not about which Ministry a Department or Agency falls under, but rather about delivering outcomes in accordance with the National Sustainable Development Plan. According to him, “We could all be under one Ministry as long as you know the outputs you’re supposed to be delivering in line with the National Sustainable Development Plan outcomes.”
We cannot help but feel that this is an oversimplification of the functions and importance of the Ministry of Justice and Community Service. Removing this ministry begets the question – how committed is our government to family protection, disability advocacy, child rights and women’s empowerment? By removing the Ministry of Justice and Community Services, it tells us that safeguarding human rights is not a priority and we are no longer centering justice, safety, dignity and respect for the people of Vanuatu.
What is the point of diversifying our revenue streams and reaping economic benefits through fishing or deep sea mining, if we are not able to meet the basic needs and rights of our people first? We understand that it’s not sustainable to rely on passport sales, tourism (COVID 19 woke us up to this) or seasonal work to support our development, but neither is this current political system that is defined by ‘big men’ who do not consider the long-term implications of their political games.
There is a quote that states, “A boss creates followers. A leader creates more leaders.” It is time for Vanuatu to move away from this type of ‘boss’ leadership that promotes followers and short-term transactions, and begin to develop a collective vision for Vanuatu that benefits all of its people, not just a few. This starts with inclusive governance and ensuring we have diverse voices in all levels of decision making to ensure ALL of us are heard on national interests– women, children, people living with disabilities and people in all their diversities – and build a nation together.
Press Release HERE