Graphic video footage of police brutality in Fiji which emerged last week is attracting international condemnation. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the incident and the New Zealand parliament is due to vote this week on a motion to condemn the brutality.
Police brutality of this nature has allegedly been going on in Fiji for years, just as sorcery-related murders have in Papua New Guinea, with little international and only limited domestic media coverage. Indeed, this 2010 report by a UN Special Rapporteur on torture tells of police brutality reaching the level of torture in Papua New Guinea.
The difference today is that witnesses can now take photos and video of incidents like these on their mobile phones and upload them to social media sites. There is no need for the traditional media to have journalists and cameras in the right place at the right time to get scoops on alarming incidents such as this or to publicise written reports by Amnesty International. Thanks to enterprising individuals at the scene and the power of social media, people can see the violence for themselves on their smartphones anywhere in the world.
Will the international outrage over this incident prove a turning point for Fiji?
Other presumed turning points – the regime's abrogation of the constitution in 2009, its campaign against the Methodist Church, or its trashing of the Constitutional Commission – have not resulted in mass public protest or increased international sanctions beyond the region.
At first blush, it would seem unlikely that this video and the reaction to it will prove decisive in redirecting the regime from its plans for Fiji or in influencing stronger international action against Fiji.
Bainimarama has responded by standing by his security forces, although Fiji's police have expressed concern (see video above) and are investigating the incident. As the experience in Papua New Guinea has shown, police violence is not necessarily related to the type of government in place, and it may not have government sanction. But at least in PNG the police force has been transparent about the extent of the problem: 623 acts of police violence were documented in 2011 and 2012. The police responsible for violence have been disciplined, with 87 dismissed for brutality since 2010 and a further 73 demoted.
Bainimarama's first response was not to condemn this incident but to support his men, demonstrating once again that his regard for human rights in Fiji is subservient to the needs of his regime. As if to rub salt into the collective human rights wound in Fiji, police canceled a permit for the annual International Women's Day 'reclaim the night' march last week.
As Rodger Shanahan has argued, Australia's own record of consistency in condemning acts of violence abroad is patchy. It is a similar story the world over. Bainimarama knows he can ride out international criticism by blaming NGOs and outsiders for beating up the story and focusing on the law and order challenge rather than the nature of his government's response to it. His government has been given a soft ride outside the region thanks to Fiji's intensive and creative diplomacy. None of the new diplomatic partners Fiji has been courting (China, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Russia, United Arab Emirates) has voiced concerns about Fiji's domestic affairs and are unlikely to be provoked into doing so by this video.
But in an age where social media plays such an important role in influencing the thinking of young people, Bainimarama would do well to consider the implications of his management of this incident on his country's image as a tourist destination and its dependence on the tourism dollar. At time of writing, the various YouTube videos depicting the police brutality incident had notched up over 145,000 views.