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The Ombudsman, racism in Samoa and seeing the red flags

Mass protests in America against discrimination and police brutality continues, as the movement triggered by the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis a fortnight ago, garners support from people of all walks of life. 

And thousands more have been gathering in different cities around the world in recent days to support the Black Lives Matter international human rights movement, as well as to put the spotlight on racism in their own nations. 

Barring the violence, the message from the anti-racist protests in cities in the U.S. to Europe and Asia is clear: the need for a concerted effort by local authorities to end discrimination of all forms and kind against ethnic minorities or people of colour.

The events in America led to the Ombudsman and Head of Samoa’s National Human Rights Institution, Maiava Iulai Toma, sounding the alarm on “systemic discrimination and abuse of power” by people in positions of authority in Samoa.

In an article titled “Ombudsman sounds alarm on ‘systemic discrimination’” published in the June 7, 2020 edition of the Sunday Samoan, Maiava puts the spotlight on discrimination and racism in Samoa and pleads for these practices to be stamped out.

“As a small nation, racial discrimination is not as visible but that does not mean that it does not exist in Samoa,” he said. “We have had situations of discrimination based on status, nationality, gender, religion, ability, etc and as a nation, there are things that we can do to stamp out discrimination.

“We can start with the proper use of language to describe people (eg. tama uli/tagata uli) when referring to black persons as opposed to meauli and ensuring our actions do not encroach on the rights of another.”

Maiava hit the nail on the head when he said Samoa does not need to look to the crisis in the U.S. for evidence of “systemic discrimination”. 

Discrimination and racism in Samoa is not blatant like in America, but that does not mean it doesn’t exist here. It is subtle and inconspicuous and at times can be practised even without us knowing, which is behaviour psychologists term ‘unconscious bias’.

As an employee of a resort or service industry in Samoa, you have an inclination to serve an expat over an indigenous customer, without publicly stating or showing your personal preferences. That is unconscious bias bordering on discrimination.

Or as a workshop owner, you will give priority to fixing a car owned by an expat couple over local customers, as you are of the view that the couple will settle their bill promptly and even pay more. Again, your preference is biased and is at best discriminatory towards your local clients.

Even our schools, where the next generation of Samoans are educated to prepare them to progress this nation and take on the world, can become entangled in a web of racism if teachers are not proactive to recognise and address such behaviour when exposed and promulgated by students.

The Ombudsman is correct in his analysis of the role that the faa-Samoa principles faaaloalo [respect] and ava fatafata [mutual respect] continue to play to neutralise and keep at bay the ugly side of discrimination and racism in our community.

But as citizens we must not take things for granted nor be afraid to speak out against discrimination and racism every time it manifests itself in our nation, either through the actions of individuals or Government policies.

We say this while reminding ourselves of the plight of the Sogi village residents and the descendants of the Tama Uli, whom the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.)-led Government battled with for over a decade over land that they lived on at Sogi.

The land was given to them by the German colonial administration over 100 years ago, whose forefathers worked to develop and reclaim. That is until 2011 when the Government announced its plan to relocate them to Falelauniu, triggering protracted court battles with the Samoa Land Corporation (S.L.C.), with the Supreme Court dismissing an appeal against their eviction by the S.L.C. in 2018.

Samoan historian and academic, Meleisea Leasiolagi Professor Malama Meleisea, in a letter to the Samoa Observer in 2016 told of his research work into the descendants of the Tama Uli in the 1970s, their Melanesian origins and the discrimination they suffered in pre-independence Samoa.

Questions remain on whether the families were adequately compensated for the land that the S.L.C. has now taken over, after over 100 years of residence by their forefathers. The Government’s strongarm tactics and treatment of the Tama Uli families borders on discrimination, which does not augur well for the future for Samoa’s minority groups.

And amidst the local and international condemnation of the Government’s proposed reforms of the Judiciary, we must not rest on our laurels and should take note of the concerns expressed by the Samoa Law Society of three contentious legislation currently before the Parliament being defective, dysfunctional and racist.

While we all strive for a free and just society where everyone aspires to live in peace and harmony, we should also be ready to protect the community and speak out every time we see the red flags.

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