Kiribati is a multiparty democracy that holds regular elections and has experienced peaceful transfers of power between competing groups. Civil liberties are generally upheld, though outstanding problems include a ban on same-sex sexual activity and some forms of gender discrimination.
- Authorities imposed COVID-19-related curfews in South Tarawa and Betio in May, after two crewmembers of a fishing vessel tested positive. No coronavirus cases or deaths were reported within Kiribati during the year.
- In November, High Court chief justice William Hastings ruled that the government’s treatment of High Court judge David Lambourne was unconstitutional. Lambourne suffered wage losses and delays in repatriation and was forced to sign a contract effectively shortening the length of his term after he was stranded abroad due to COVID-19 restrictions in 2020.
- In February, Tarawa announced that Kiribati would leave the Pacific Islands Forum. Kiribati and four other member states announced their departure due to a disagreement over who the body’s next secretary-general should be. The decision to leave will take effect in 2022.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The president is elected through a nationwide popular vote and may serve up to three four-year terms. Three to four presidential candidates are nominated by the legislature from among its members, and cabinet members must also be members of the legislature. The president can be removed through a no-confidence vote, but this also triggers general elections.
Taneti Maamau of the Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) was reelected president in June 2020, winning decisively over Banuera Berina of the Kiribati Moa Party (KMP) in a free and fair vote. The issue of recognition of the Beijing-based Chinese government versus the government of Taiwan dominated the race, with pro-Beijing Maamau prevailing over pro-Taiwan challenger Berina, who had opposed the government’s 2019 move to end diplomatic relations with Taiwan and switch recognition to China.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The unicameral House of Assembly (Maneaba ni Maungatabu) has 46 members, 44 of whom are elected through a two-round runoff system from 26 constituencies. An appointed member is selected by representatives of people originally from the island of Banaba (Ocean Island) who now live on Fiji’s Rabi Island, having been displaced by phosphate mining during the 20th century. The attorney general holds a seat ex officio.
A free and fair legislative election was held in April 2020. The TKP took the most seats, winning 13. Following the elections, Boutokaan te Koaua (BTK) and the KMP joined to create the new Boutokaan Kiribati Moa (BKM). When the new parliament opened, TKP and BTK—counting their members and respective allies—each held 22 seats. A record four women won parliamentary seats and Tangarik Reete became the first woman parliament speaker.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The constitution and legal framework provide for democratic elections, and balloting is well administered in practice. Losing candidates and parties typically accept the final outcome of elections, and rarely raise accusations of malfeasance.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
There are no constraints on the formation of or competition between political parties. The country’s parties are relatively loose alliances that lack formal platforms and are subject to periodic mergers and reconfigurations. Geographic and ancestral ties continue to play an important role in political affiliation.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Kiribati has a history of smooth and democratic transfers of power between government and opposition parties.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
There are no significant constraints on the choices of voters and candidates imposed by forces not democratically accountable. However, a large number of I-Kiribati respondents to a Transparency International (TI) survey released in November 2021 reported receiving bribery offers for their votes.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
All citizens enjoy full political rights. However, women’s political participation is somewhat inhibited in practice by traditional social norms. The number of women elected to the legislature increased from three to four in 2020. A woman, Tangariki Reete, was also elected speaker for the first time.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
The president and cabinet are able to both form and implement their policy agenda without undue interference, while the legislature provides oversight and a check on executive authority. The government’s ability to enact policy depends on its ability to win legislative approval.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
While there is virtually no large-scale corruption in Kiribati, petty graft and nepotism in public appointments remain problems; 64 percent of I-Kiribati respondents to the 2021 TI survey said they paid a bribe within the last year.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Kiribati lacks comprehensive regulations on public asset disclosure for officials, access to government information, and other transparency matters. In 2017, a former president told lawmakers that he was denied access to basic data on the production of copra, a coconut product, despite multiple requests. Later that year, the president signed a new law, the Kiribati Audit Act, which strengthened the autonomy of the Audit Office and established an independent board to oversee its work. (The office previously reported to the Finance Ministry.) The law also laid out enforcement mechanisms and broadened the Audit Office’s mandate, allowing more thorough assessments of budgets, expenditures, and government performance.
The government responded to the fatal 2018 Butiraoi ferry disaster with opacity. After receiving public criticism over its failure to release a report on the incident, the government vowed to make the report public after the completion of a police investigation. The report was issued in 2019, but authorities only allowed individuals to read it under strict supervision; the report attributed the disaster to the vessel’s poor condition and noted that the crew was regularly inebriated.
|Are there free and independent media?
While the market does not support a large and diverse media sector, there are no significant restrictions on the flow of news and information, which is often disseminated informally. A small number of private news and media outlets operate freely. Wave TV, which launched in 2019, was reportedly the first to produce content locally. Foreign radio services are available.
Foreign journalists can perform their roles in Kiribati only after receiving a permit. In 2019, a group of Australian journalists was restricted to a Tarawa hotel after they allegedly arrived without the requisite permit. The journalists had visited Kiribati to report on the government’s decision to end its recognition of Taiwan.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Religious organizations of a certain size are required to register with the government, but there are no penalties for failing to do so. Two islands in the southern part of the archipelago have overwhelmingly Protestant populations and maintain a “one religion” tradition. However, foreign missionaries may operate freely there upon requesting permission from local authorities.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
The school system is free of political indoctrination, and religious education by various denominations is available in public schools but not mandatory. There are no restrictions on academic freedom in the country, which hosts a campus of the Fiji-based University of the South Pacific as well as a teachers’ college and technical training centers.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
The government does not impose constraints on freedom of speech or the expression of personal views.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected and generally upheld in practice.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
There are no undue constraints on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The Kiribati Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (KANGO) serves as an umbrella group for a number of local NGOs, including church-based groups and health associations.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Workers have the right to organize unions, strike, and bargain collectively. The Kiribati Trade Union Congress, an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation, includes unions and associations representing nurses, teachers, fishermen, and seafarers.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The judicial system is modeled on English common law, and the courts are independent in practice. The chief justice is appointed by the president on the advice of the cabinet and the Public Service Commission (PSC); other High Court judges are appointed by the president on the advice of the chief justice and the PSC. Judges cannot be removed unless a special tribunal and the legislature find evidence of misbehavior, or an inability to perform their functions.
Beginning in 2020, the government sought to prevent High Court judge David Lambourne—an Australian who was stranded there due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions—from returning to his post by refusing to issue a work permit, preventing his repatriation to Kiribati, and by declining to pay his wages. Lambourne signed a contract that effectively shortened his appointment but sued the attorney general in August 2021 after Tarawa again halted wage payments. In November, High Court chief justice William Hastings ruled that the government’s actions were unconstitutional, instructing the authorities to facilitate Lambourne’s return and declaring that he held a life appointment to the court. The attorney general vowed to appeal.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Due process guarantees are typically respected during arrests, initial detentions, and trials. Detainees have access to lawyers, and defendants are usually granted bail while awaiting trial.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Police brutality is uncommon, and procedures for punishing such abuse are effective. Prison conditions are not considered harsh or inhumane. Kiribati has no army, relying on Australia and New Zealand to provide defense assistance under bilateral agreements. The use of traditional communal justice systems, which can include corporal punishment, is increasingly rare.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Women face legal discrimination on some issues as well as societal bias that limits their access to employment in practice. Citizenship laws favor men over women, for example by allowing fathers but not mothers to confer citizenship on children.
Same-sex sexual activity is a criminal offense, though the ban is rarely enforced; discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation is prohibited.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
While there are no significant constraints on internal freedom of movement, the government did impose overnight curfews in South Tarawa and Betio in May 2021, after two crewmembers of a fishing vessel tested positive for COVID-19.
I-Kiribati who were stranded when the coronavirus pandemic spread in 2020 gained access to repatriation flights later that year. Borders otherwise remained largely closed in 2021.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
The government operates a system of land registration and generally upholds property rights. Land is owned on either an individual or a kinship basis, and inheritance laws pertaining to land favor sons over daughters. The World Bank has reported some bureaucratic obstacles to private business activity.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Same-sex marriage is not permitted. Domestic violence is criminalized but remains a serious and widespread problem. A 2019 survey of domestic violence in South Tarawa found that 38 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a male partner. Cultural norms deter formal complaints and police interventions.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
There are few economic opportunities in Kiribati, with most citizens engaged in subsistence agriculture. Although forced labor and other exploitative working conditions are uncommon, local women and girls are vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, often involving the crews of visiting ships.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 2015, children and adolescents are restricted from professions considered dangerous. The Employment and Industrial Relations Act of 2015 sets the minimum employment age for most work at 14 years and the minimum age for “hazardous” work at 18.
Kiribati is considered among the world’s most environmentally vulnerable countries as a result of climate change and associated rising sea levels, which will affect coastal regions. The effects will likely have a detrimental impact on farming, fishing, and people’s access to fresh water.
Access to water remains a serious concern for the approximately 300 residents who remain on Banaba. Water was scarce during part of 2021 due to a drought. Residents were again without clean water by November, as desalinization plants installed earlier in the year reportedly did not function correctly.
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