L.T.C bills passage "disappointing," Amnesty International

Amnesty International has expressed disappointment that Samoa has passed three pieces of legislation despite widespread local and international concern they will erode human rights in the country.

Amnesty International Pacific Researcher, Kate Shuetze, told the Samoa Observer on Wednesday that the laws remain highly problematic, and maintains they were written and passed too quickly.

The Land and Titles Bill, the Judicature Amendment Bill and the Constitution Amendment Bill were passed during a on Tuesday. Forty one voted for and four voted against the bills after an all-day Parliament session.

Together, the three bills fundamentally alter the structure of the country’s judicial system and experts both in Samoa and abroad have said the bills stand to undermine democracy in Samoa if passed. 

In May, Ms. Schuetze highlighted her concerns with the bills, and seven months later those concerns remain the same. 

“The bills in themselves were quite problematic from a human rights perspective and in terms of what it means for justice in the country,” she said. “They carve out a new and separate court system in the Land and Titles Court. They take away constitutional protections of human rights and they are not consistent with international standards on the independence of judges and lawyers. 

“It’s disappointing to see that in spite of the wide range of opposition and concerns raised by these bills, not just domestically but internationally, those concerns don’t see to have been considered and addressed in the passing of these laws which significantly undermine the rule of law and human rights protection in the country.”

Ms. Schuetze said for any country, it is never too late to reverse or amend laws that risk human rights. She said she hopes the Government will “change its tune” in the near future and strengthen the judiciary rather than weaken it.

Political will in the Parliament of the day is essential for this, but “strategic litigation” is also an option, she said.

Already, prolific lawyer and former Attorney General Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu has written to the Attorney General notifying her of an upcoming legal challenge to the bills.

The Samoa Observer understands there may be several other challenges mounted against each of the three bills, even as Government moves to have them signed off by the Head of State.

In a press release by the Office of the Attorney General released on Wednesday, the Government describes the bills as “transformational,” and say they give “appropriate recognition to the status of the Land and Titles Court.

“Samoa has its own form of democracy, defined by our Constitution, and influenced by Christianity and our Samoa customs and traditions. Our democracy does not subordinate our Samoa culture, it thrives because of it.”

But Ms. Schuetze is not convinced these laws are safe.

“Essentially by carving out the separate land court it creates a quasi-feudal legal system around land ownership where human rights are not a part of that,” she said.

“Human rights are by their very nature indivisible, universal, they apply to everyone and that is what we would like to see happen here.”

Asked whether there could be international backlash against Samoa for persisting with these new laws, Ms. Schuetze said it is likely.

Next year Samoa will undergo its Universal Periodic Review with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Ms. Schuetze said she expects that among other things, the review will look at the U.N.’s previous commentary on the three bills, including criticism from the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

In May, Special Rapporter Diego Garcia-Sayan wrote to Samoa to say the constitituional changes should be withdrawn. 

“I am concerned that the proposed amendments to the Constitution, the Judicature Ordinance and the Lands and Titles Act would, if adopted, fall short of international standards relating to the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers,” he wrote.

“I am also worried at the wide discretionary powers that the executive power, through the Head of State, retains in relation to the appointment and dismissal of the Chief Justice, the President of the LTC, and ordinary judges.”

Ms. Schuetze said that as well as the international actors making their views known, Samoans need to rally together and have their voices heard.

“People within Samoa need to challenge this and say their human rights need to be recognised and to be heard at the political level,” she said. 

“That requires a lot of people coming together to make their voices heard on those issues.

“There will be further international scrutiny and condemnation of the steps Samoa has taken to undermine the rule of law in the country and I would like to reiterate that it is never too late for the Samoan government to change its tune and decide that human rights protection can be upheld by changing these laws.”

In Parliament, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi gave a resounding speech in support of the bills, and called Tuesday’s session a “monumental day for the Parliament of Samoa.

“Why? Because it has been 6- years since our forefathers have wanted us to do this; to protect our country through the village council and also our lands and chiefly titles.”

He said he believes the framers of Samoa’s Constitution expected future leaders to cement the role of land, culture and chiefly titles in due time. 

Ms. Schuetze said it is entirely appropriate to review old laws to ensure they still serve people, but the three new bills do not do this.

“What he is talking about here is a regression in terms of human rights protection in the country.

“You need to create the best legal and judicial system that protects the rights of the most vulnerable persons and people that don’t hold the power in that dynamic. 

“It is appropriate to revisit law and policies over time and make sure they are doing their job in terms of upholding fundamental human rights but this is not a question of these laws protecting human rights, there are very serious concerns that it can be used to undermine human rights."

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