People in Nauru generally enjoy political rights and civil liberties, though the government has taken steps to sideline its political opponents—particularly the Nauru 19 a group who had been charged with a variety of crimes in connection with a 2015 antigovernment protest. Corruption is a serious problem. Asylum seekers and refugees housed in Nauru under an agreement with Australia live in dire conditions, and the country has attracted sustained international criticism over the persistent reports of abuses against them.
- Lionel Aingimea was elected president of Nauru in the August 2019 parliamentary elections, defeating the incumbent Baron Waqa.
- In July, members of the Nauru 19 filed official legal actions against the government after the death of former president Sprent Dabwido. The members claim that the government’s deliberate delay in returning Dabwido his passport prevented him from accessing cancer treatment in Australia in time to survive the illness.
- In December, the Nauru 19 were sentence to time in jail. Critics condemned the entirety of the proceedings as broken, unfair, and indicative of a judiciary that lacked independence.
- Conditions in the Australian refugee and asylum-seeker processing center on Nauru worsened throughout the year, particularly after February when the Nauruan government passed controversial legislation that enabled them to block the medical evacuation of refugees in critical condition.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Nauru is a parliamentary republic, and the parliament chooses the president and vice president from among its members.
In the August 2019 parliamentary elections, which were independently monitored by the Pacific Islands Forum, incumbent president Baron Waqa lost reelection in his constituency, and thus the opportunity to be reelected president. Lionel Aingimea was subsequently chosen to be president, winning with 12 votes to 6 over rival David Adeang.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The 19-member unicameral Parliament is popularly elected from eight constituencies for three-year terms. The 2019 parliamentary elections occurred in August. Although the Pacific Islands Forum sent a monitoring mission, no report was made available by the end of 2019.
Then-president Waqa was accused of manipulating the electoral rolls by granting citizenship to around 118 foreigners who would go on to vote for him. Because there were only 7,000 voters registered, this could have had a significant impact on the election’s outcome. However, Waqa did not win reelection.
Only two women were elected into Parliament in the 2019 election; one of who was an incumbent.
In February 2019, former president Waqa proposed changing the constitution to extend representatives terms to four years. However, no such changes appear to have been made by the end of 2019.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
The electoral laws are generally fair and implemented impartially. The Nauru Electoral Commission is responsible for managing the entire election process. Voting is compulsory.
In the August 2019 elections, a recount was conducted for the Ubenide electorate after six paper ballots were discovered in the parliamentary chamber. The recount did not change the outcome of the election and there was no evident manipulation of the initial tally.
In July 2019, a former representative alleged that bribery was rife in the electoral process. He claimed that candidates routinely buy motorcycles and kitchenware for constituents, yet nothing is done about it. He believes that laws curbing free speech in the country, which include a law that criminalizes criticism of the government, deter people from discussing the issue.
|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|
Although political parties are permitted, most candidates run as independents.
A contempt-of-court law enacted in May 2018 was criticized as being designed to intimidate opposition figures and others who supported the Nauru 19. The law makes criticism of witnesses, judicial officers, or legal representatives in a pending court matter illegal, as well as undermining judicial officials or the authority of courts. Violations of the law, which contains exemptions for government officials deemed to be acting in good faith or the interests of national security, are punishable by fines of up to $20,000 for individuals and $50,000 for corporations.
In 2019, the government continued its prosecution and persecution of the Nauru 19, in what legal experts had declared an example of a “bullying government, using the arms of the state to persecute its opponents.” Despite this, a blacklisting of members of the Nauru 19 was lifted in September, although newly elected president Lionel Aingimea denied that the government had ever taken steps to prevent them from traveling or gaining employment.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
Intense political rivalries created political instability prior to 2013. However, former president Waqa served two full terms before losing his seat as a representative and being replaced by Lionel Aingimea in 2019. The 2019 elections were generally regarded as free and fair, though some observers accused former President Waqa’s government of “number boosting” by granting citizenship to foreigners in a bid to increase his support base.
The 2019 elections also featured significant turnover of representatives, with about half of incumbents losing their seats in parliament.
|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|
People’s political choices are generally free from domination by powerful interests that are not democratically accountable.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution provides for universal suffrage. However, widely held biases regarding the role of women in society have discouraged women’s participation in politics and elections; just two women won seats in Parliament in August 2019. Including the two representatives elected into the 2019 parliament, only three women have been elected in Nauru’s modern history.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
The freely elected Parliament, led by the speaker, sets and makes policy. However, Australia has had considerable influence over politics because its bases its processing center for asylum seekers on Nauru. Australia has detained many refugees on the island indefinitely, which is a significant source of income for Nauru’s government.
This processing center was the center of much controversy throughout 2019. In February, the Nauruan government rushed through regulations that enabled them to block medical referrals, made by overseas doctors, for asylum seekers and refugees held in the processing center. This regulation came after new laws in Australia that allowed doctors to compel the transfer of sick refugees from Nauru to Australia (called the “medevac” law). Using this regulation in November, Nauru blocked the evacuation of 20 asylum seekers approved for medical transfer to Australia.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Corruption remains a problem. Allegations of improper payments to senior government officials, including former President Waqa, by an Australian phosphate company emerged in 2016, and an investigation by Australian federal police remained ongoing in 2019. Legal proceedings related to the scandal also took place in Singapore in 2018, where a local company was fined for bribing a Nauruan member of Parliament.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in 2018 that many family members of Nauruan politicians owned shares of the land where the Australian-run processing center is situated, and disproportionately benefit from their ability to collect high rents or secure high-paying jobs or other contracts at the center.
In 2019, the Paladin scandal shed light on the extent of corruption involved in the treatment of refugees, and the companies hired for related services, on Nauru. The Australian auditor general opened an investigation into its contracts with the Nauru government in March.
In April, former president Sprent Dabwido—who had signed the offshore detention deal with Australia during his time as president—claimed that the money Nauru received from Australia for hosting of the asylum processing center had led to vast amounts of corruption. The government and then-president Waqa denied these allegations.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
Nauru lacks a law on access to public information, but the Government Information Office releases some budget figures. Government officials are not required to disclose financial information. A 2017 audit of the 2013–14 government accounts ended a 15-year gap between government audits, a gap which officials blamed on an absence of qualified staff.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed but not always respected in practice. Foreign journalists have a particularly difficult time operating in Nauru, as the government has implemented restrictions that appear to be aimed at deterring outside coverage of conditions for asylum seekers and refugees. Since 2014, foreign journalists have been subject to a visa application fee of roughly $6,000, up from approximately $150 previously.
Ahead of the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum, held in Nauru, the government banned the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from entering the country, describing it as an “activist media organization.”
The 2016 Crimes Act introduced criminal charges for defamation, now punishable with up to three years in prison. Similarly, the Administration of Justice Act, a contempt-of-court law passed in 2018, serves as a deterrent for journalists to publish pieces critical of the government and the judiciary.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, which the government generally respects in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Authorities are not known to illegally monitor private online communications. For three years, the government blocked Facebook, citing a need to protect users from obscene and pornographic content; the policy more likely represented another example of the government attempting to restrict coverage of the Australian processing center for asylum seekers. The ban was ultimately lifted in 2018.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution upholds the right to assemble peacefully, but this right has not always been respected in practice. Demonstrations related to the treatment of asylum seekers housed at the Australian processing center are often repressed. Members of the Nauru 19 group, who were arrested for their 2015 antigovernment protests, were sentenced to jailtime in December 2019.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
There are no legal restrictions on the formation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Nauru. There are several advocacy groups for women, as well as development-focused and religious organizations. However, authorities have interfered with the operations of activists seeking to improve the treatment of asylum seekers.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
There are no formal trade unions and only limited labor protection laws, partly because there is little large-scale private employment. The rights to strike and to collectively bargain are not protected by law.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
There have been concerns about undue influence on the judiciary from government officials, who have been accused of dismissing judges for unfavorable rulings. Many are concerned that government officials have pressured the judiciary in connection with the Nauru 19 case.
The Supreme Court is the highest authority on constitutional issues in Nauru. Appeals had previously been heard in the high court of Australia, but in March 2018, Nauruan Justice Minister Adeang announced that the country would sever links with Australia’s justice system, citing both onerous costs associated with case proceedings in another country, and the need for Nauru to establish greater independence. However, some skeptics viewed the development as a means of denying the Nauru 19 an avenue to appeal their cases. Nauru later signed memoranda with neighboring Pacific countries, including Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, to provide justices for Nauru’s new Court of Appeals.
The Nauruan government has been accused of interfering with the judicial process and undermining the rule of law. Australian Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Muecke claimed the government terminated his contract as a result of his granting a permanent stay for the Nauru 19 court proceedings. He claimed the government also pressured the sentencing magistrate to issue maximum penalties to members of the group.
Despite these recent developments, President Aingimea, elected in August 2019, claimed that neither he nor the preceding government had interfered with the judiciary’s independence. In December, the Nauru government accused supporters of the Nauru 19 of being in contempt of court, while Nauru’s Chief Justice insisted that the government had not interfered in the proceedings of the Nauru 19 case. Despite these claims and as a result of the events surrounding the Nauru 19 case, the New Zealand government withdrew its financial support for the Nauruan judiciary.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Though the constitution provides for due process rights, the resumption of legal proceedings against the so-called Nauru 19 as well as changes to the appellate jurisdiction indicate that due process is not always respected in practice.
In 2017, the government passed a law that distinguishes between public servants who testify in favor of the government or against it. Analysts said it appeared that those who miss work to testify against the government would be placed on leave without pay, and that the law appeared to represent an attempt to discourage civil servants from testifying in favor of the Nauru 19.
Legal proceedings against the Nauru 19, which had been permanently stayed in September 2018 by Justice Muecke, were renewed after the stay was overturned by the Nauru Appeals Court in June 2019. Muecke had been fired after granting the stays on proceedings in 2018. In October 2019, the protesters launched a new appeal, seeking again to have a permanent stay placed on the charges. However, this appeal was denied by the courts, and the Nauru 19 were sentenced to jail time in December 2019.
Legal experts in Australia and New Zealand criticized the entire legal and judicial process for the Nauru 19 case as unjust. During its four year period, reports emerged of plagiarism, corruption, exploitation and mistreatment of judges (specifically, Geoffrey Muecke, who claimed that parts of his contract had not been paid), bias in the judiciary, denial of legal representation, and more. While court proceedings were ongoing, the members of the group were jailed. Critics claimed that the entire process represented a breakdown of the rule of law and set a “chilling precedent” for the future of the Nauruan judiciary.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to recent structural changes to the judiciary and rulings associated with the high-profile Nauru 19 case that effectively eliminated defendants’ access to a fair trial and avenues for appeal.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Civilian authorities control the small police force. Nauru has no armed forces; Australia provides defense assistance under an informal agreement.
The Australian processing center for asylum seekers has received considerable international criticism for poor treatment of asylum seekers housed there. Few arrests have been made in connection with alleged abuses of its residents.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution provides for equal treatment regardless of race, country of origin, ethnicity, politics, or gender, but those rights are not always protected in practice. There are few legal protections against discrimination, which is notably a problem for women in the workplace. In 2016, the government decriminalized homosexuality, which had previously been punishable by up to 14 years of hard labor.
Reports of widespread abuse of refugees and asylum seekers forcibly transferred to Nauru under its agreement with Australia continued in 2019. Crimes committed against asylum seekers outside the processing center, where most refugees are housed, frequently go uninvestigated. The asylum seekers suffer from grossly inadequate housing; denial of health care for life-threatening conditions; and a high rate of self-harm attempts among residents—who wait, at times, for years for their asylum applications to be processed. Rates of self-harm among refugee was found to be 200 times more likely than that of Australian citizens. Thoughts of self-harm among children were particularly alarming, and reports of this mental health issue were ignored by authorities. The last children were evacuated off of Nauru and resettled in the United States in February 2019. In March, reports from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) found that refugees had been exposed to prolonged periods to asbestos.
In February, after Australia passed a bill allowing doctors to compel the medical evacuation of refugees, the Nauruan government hurried through legislation that gave them the right to deny such actions. In November, the Nauruan government denied the transfer of over 20 individuals for medical reasons, all of whom had been vouched for by Australian doctors.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
Most people in Nauru are free to move around the island. However, while asylum seekers were granted freedom of movement across the island in 2015, there are limits on their ability to leave, including in order to accompany family members who receive emergency medical care in Australia, and they face significant difficulties in obtaining employment and education. Many asylum seekers still live in tents and converted storage containers at the Australian processing center, where they remain under heavy surveillance. In October 2018, the aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was asked by Nauru officials to stop providing care for asylum seekers, and the group subsequently left the country. In the days afterward, MSF condemned conditions for the asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru and claimed they had been forced out.
The government has withheld the passports of some political opponents in recent years, including at least three people associated with the Nauru 19, among them two former opposition lawmakers. These two opposition lawmakers blame the government for the death of former president and Nauru 19 member Sprent Dabwido. Legal action, filed in July 2019 by the two former lawmakers, claims that the Nauruan government delayed in returning Dabwido his passport, preventing him from receiving treatment for cancer in Australia in time to be cured.
|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 constitution protects the right to own property and people in Nauru are able to freely establish businesses. However, as of 2014, foreigners must pay approximately $4,500 a year for a business visa, up from $300.
In his ruling on the Nauru 19 case, Judge Muecke said that the government of Nauru maintained an unwritten blacklist under which the Nauru 19 were denied employment and the right to conduct business on the island.
|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|
Domestic violence, which mostly affects women, remains a serious problem, and children are also vulnerable to violence. However, authorities have taken some efforts to address these problems, notably by approving the new protections within the 2017 Domestic Violence and Family Protection Bill, and the 2016 Child Protection and Welfare Act. Marital rape was also made a criminal offense in 2016. Same-sex marriage is not recognized by law. Abortion is only allowed when the mother’s life is in danger, but not in cases of rape; the ban on abortion in cases of rape sparked controversy in 2016, with regard to the treatment of a pregnant asylum seeker who said she was raped at the Australian-run processing center.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
With the exception of asylum seekers, individuals generally enjoy equal economic opportunities. However, economic opportunities are limited to sectors such as phosphate mining and the public sector.
There are no health and safety laws to protect workers outside the public sector, and issues relating to dust exposure for phosphate miners are of serious concern. According to the US State Department, there have been no reports of human trafficking in Nauru in recent years.
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