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, some forms of gender discrimination, and recent pressure on judicial independence.
- The government continued to grapple with the courts over its effort to deport David Lambourne, a High Court judge and the husband of the country’s opposition leader. Kiribati was left without any judges above the magistrate level after the government responded to an unfavorable appellate ruling by suspending three Court of Appeal judges in September; chief justice William Hastings had been suspended in July. In late October, the government appointed its own attorney general as acting chief justice.
- In July, Kiribati announced its withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum, arguing that the group was not adequately addressing the concerns of Micronesian countries.
- In September, the parliamentary opposition sought unsuccessfully to advance a no-confidence motion against the government, citing its handling of the judicial crisis among other criticisms.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
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, decisively defeating Banuera Berina of the Kiribati Moa Party (KMP) in a free and fair vote. The issue of diplomatic recognition of the Beijing-based Chinese government versus the government of Taiwan dominated the race, with Berina opposing 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?||4.004 4.004|
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.
Free and fair legislative elections were held in April 2020. The TKP took the most seats, with 13. Following the elections, Boutokaan te Koaua (BTK) and the KMP joined forces to create the new party Boutokaan Kiribati Moa (BKM). When the new parliament opened, TKP and BTK—counting their members and respective allies—each held 22 seats.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
No significant constraints are imposed on the choices of voters and candidates by forces that are not democratically accountable. However, a large number of I-Kiribati respondents to a 2021 Transparency International (TI) survey reported receiving offers of bribes in exchange 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?||3.003 4.004|
While all citizens formally enjoy full political rights, 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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||3.003 4.004|
While there is virtually no large-scale corruption in Kiribati, petty graft and nepotism in public appointments remain problems. Some 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?||3.003 4.004|
Kiribati lacks comprehensive regulations on public asset disclosure for officials, access to government information, and other transparency matters. The 2017 Kiribati Audit Act 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.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
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 television station 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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
The government does not impose constraints on freedom of speech or the expression of personal views.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||2.002 4.004|
The judicial system is modeled on English common law, and historically the courts have been independent. 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.
However, beginning in 2020, the government sought to prevent High Court judge David Lambourne—an Australian who was stranded in his home country for a time due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions—from returning to his post by refusing to issue him a work permit and declining to pay his wages. His wife, Tessie Lambourne, had become leader of the parliamentary opposition that year. Lambourne agreed to sign a contract that effectively shortened his appointment, but sued the attorney general in August 2021 after Tarawa again halted wage payments. In November 2021, High Court chief justice William Hastings, a New Zealander, 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.
In May 2022, the president suspended Lambourne from the High Court over public comments that were critical of the government and appointed a tribunal to investigate his alleged misconduct. Lambourne filed an appeal of his suspension, to be heard by Hastings, but Hastings was himself suspended in July, also for public comments that were critical of the government. In August, after Lambourne had returned to Kiribati, the government attempted to forcibly deport him, but Fiji Airways refused to transport the judge against his will. After being briefly held in immigration detention, he was released on bail. In September, after three other New Zealander judges sitting as a Court of Appeal ruled against the attempted deportation, the government suspended them as well, leaving the country without any judges above the magistrate level. In October, Kiribati’s attorney general, Tetiro Semilota, was appointed acting chief justice. Since Semilota had been an ex officio member of the cabinet, her appointment intensified concerns about judicial independence and the rule of law.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 2 because the government suspended several senior judges who resisted its persistent attempts to remove and deport a particular High Court judge, and because it appointed a member of the cabinet as acting chief justice.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||3.003 4.004|
Women face legal discrimination on some issues as well as societal bias that limits their access to employment in practice.
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?||4.004 4.004|
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. In January 2022 the country entered another lockdown as the virus’s Omicron variant spread through Tarawa; most travel restrictions had been lifted by early August.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
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.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
There are few legal restrictions on personal freedom regarding matters such as marriage and divorce, though same-sex marriage is not permitted, and citizenship laws allow fathers but not mothers to confer citizenship on children. Domestic violence is criminalized but remains a serious and widespread problem. A 2019 survey 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?||3.003 4.004|
There are few economic opportunities in Kiribati, with most citizens engaged in subsistence agriculture, fishing, and other informal-sector activities that lack effective legal safeguards on issues like wages and working hours. According to the US State Department, the public sector accounts for some 80 percent of formal employment. 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. Enforcement of these laws, while active, is limited by financial constraints.
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