Samoa's new human rights body leading the way | Pacific Beat

Samoa's new human rights body leading the way

Samoa's new human rights body leading the way

Updated 24 December 2013, 8:25 AEDT

The head of Samoa's new human rights body says he hopes other Pacific nations can follow its example.

After passing legislation in June, the institution was launched this month and is the first of its kind in Samoa. Maiava Iulai Toma - who is also the country's ombudsman - says he doesn't have the power to investigate individual complaints. But the plan is to expand the new body's jurisdiction.

Presenter: Tom Maddocks

Speakers: Speakers: Maiava Iulai Toma, Ombudsman and head of the Samoa Human Rights Institution; Erik Friberg, Officer-in-Charge, Deputy Regional Representative, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

MADDOCKS: Maiava Iulai Toma was a conventional ombudsman until Samoan legislation expanded his duties to incorporate the protection and promotion of human rights.

But unlike the function of the ombudsman, Maiava's powers are limited as head of Samoa's new human rights body.

MAIAVA: I cannot investigate and resolve individual human rights complaints. But I can conduct enquires into situations of widespread or chronic violations of human rights.

MADDOCKS: Maiava says while he can't resolve individual complaints under his new role, he can make determinations that a violation has taken place and recommend that victims receive compensation.

It's still early days for the rights body - legislation was passed in June, and the body was only launched this month.

And while its jurisdiction is restricted, it's hoped the ombudsman's mandate will be broadened to include enquires from individuals.

But Maiava says taking on that extra responsibility is not feasible at the moment.

MAIAVA: We're quite a small office and we'll be quite stretched to even undertake the new responsibilities that we have been given. I don't think we'll be in a position in the very near future to conduct investigations into individual complaints of human rights violations.

MADDOCKS: So really a separate institution needs to be set up?

MAIAVA: Well not really a separate one but a greatly enhanced staffing of the present institution. In a small country like Samoa it's very difficult to have a multiplicity of these institutions that a society needs and perhaps this is the way small countries can proceed in these matters is to have an integrity institution with multiple functions but they would have to sort of beef up their staffing a little bit.

MADDOCKS: Erik Friberg from the United Nations Human Rights commission.

Alongside the Asia Pacific Forum, the UN has long been supporting the creation of a human rights body in Samoa.

Erik Friberg says Samoa should be applauded.

FRIBERG: By Samoa taking this step of joining the increasing number of countries around the world who have such an institution it really speaks highly to the commitment of Samoa to advance human rights. So we welcome this development.

MADDOCKS: He says other countries across the Pacific could follow Samoa's lead.

PNG, Vanuatu, Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands are all considering a human rights institution.

According to Maiava, times are changing and those changes have spurred on the Samoan government to take a more formal look at human rights.

MAIAVA: In Samoa we have traditional authorities that keep law and order in the rural communities and they're vital institutions because without them we wouldn't have law and order. We have a very small police force. So these authorities are very important to our society. But then you have situations where individuals run into difficult situations with these authorities. So that's one area I expect people will bring up.

I haven't been a human rights man for very long. I've been an ombudsman. But I have to learn human rights very quickly and take on my new responsibilities.

MADDOCKS: Maiava will have to report to parliament on the state of human rights in Samoa by June next year.

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