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, an activist 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.
- To prevent the spread of coronavirus in the country, Nauruan authorities severely restricted international travel to and from the country and introduced severe penalties for breaching public health measures, such as the government-imposed curfew. By the end of the year, no one in Nauru tested positive for COVID-19, according to government statistics provided to the World Health Organization (WHO).
- In October, the United States government agreed to resettle over 1,100 asylum seekers, many of whom were in detention in the Nauru processing center, by early 2021. The agreement would leave less than 80 asylum seekers on the island.
|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. In the August 2019 parliamentary elections, observed by the Pacific Islands Forum monitoring mission, then-president Waqa was accused of manipulating the electoral rolls by granting citizenship to around 118 foreigners. However, the 2019 elections were generally regarded as free and fair, and Waqa did not win reelection.
In February 2019, former president Waqa proposed changing the constitution to extend representatives terms to four years. However, no such changes were made by the end of 2020.
|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.
|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 activist group.
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, government interference into the lives of members of the Nauru 19 reportedly eased in September 2019, 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 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. In July 2019, a former representative alleged that bribery was rife in the electoral process, claiming that candidates routinely buy motorcycles and kitchenware for constituents.
|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|
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, one of whom was an incumbent. Including those two representatives, 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, the Australian government has had considerable influence over politics due to the processing center for asylum seekers they base on Nauru. Australian authorities have detained many refugees on the island indefinitely, which is a significant source of income for Nauru’s government.
In February 2019, 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 were passed in Australia that allowed doctors to compel the transfer of sick refugees from Nauru to Australia (called the “Medevac” law).
|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 2020. 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; they disproportionately benefit from their ability to collect high rents or secure high-paying jobs or other contracts at the center.
In April 2019, former president Sprent Dabwido—who had signed the offshore asylum seeker 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 AUD $8,000 ($5,500), up from approximately AUD $150 ($103) previously. The media visa fee remained unchanged at the end of 2020.
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.
Reports emerged in 2020 that the University of the South Pacific, a regional university with campuses located in various countries in the South Pacific including Nauru, was plagued by allegations of corruption and large-scale improper spending. President Aingimea, who assumed the role of chancellor of the university in July 2020, acknowledged that the governance of the university needed improvement.
|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.
In June 2020, the president presented the National Disaster Risk Management (Amendment) Bill 2020, which outlawed publishing or posting messages on social or mass media that are intended to cause fear, mislead the public, or distort official information, with severe punishments. The new law also expands police powers to act in a national disaster without a warrant. How the new law will be applied and what level of oversight will be exercised, was unclear at the end of 2020.
|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 jail time in December 2019.
Failure to adhere to public gather restrictions that were introduced to curtail the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing regulations, can result in hefty fines of up to AUD $5,000 ($3,438) or imprisonment.
|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 David 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 members of the Nauru 19 activist group 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. The May 2018 contempt-of-court 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 AUD $20,000 ($15,469) for individuals and AUD $50,000 ($38,673) for corporations.
Australian Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Muecke claimed the government terminated his contract as a result of his granting a permanent stay in 2018 for the Nauru 19 court proceedings. He claimed the government also pressured the sentencing magistrate to issue maximum penalties to members of the group. In December 2019, 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. President Aingimea claimed that neither he nor the preceding government had interfered with the judiciary’s independence. The members of the Nauru 19 were ultimately convicted and sentenced to jail time in December 2019. As a result of the events surrounding the Nauru 19 case, the New Zealand government withdrew its financial support of 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 members of the 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. 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 justice system.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
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.
Several reports have detailed widespread abuse of refugees and asylum seekers forcibly transferred to Nauru under its agreement with Australia. 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 refugees 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 from Nauru and resettled in the United States in February 2019. In March 2019, reports from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) found that refugees had been exposed to asbestos for prolonged periods. In November 2019, the Nauruan government denied the medical evacuation of over 20 individuals, all of whom had been vouched for by Australian doctors.
In October 2020, the United States agreed to resettle over 1,100 asylum seekers who were in the Nauru and Papua New Guinea processing centers by early 2021. The agreement would leave 80 asylum seekers on the two islands.
|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 had lived in tents and converted storage containers at the Australian processing center, where they were 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. As of March 31, 2020, 209 asylum seekers transferred to Nauru from Australia remained in the country.
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.
To prevent the introduction of COVID-19 into the country, Nauruan stopped most international flights landing in March 2020 and imposed quarantine requirements for most international arrivals, except for those arriving from a regularly updated list of “safe countries” deemed to have sufficiently low levels of COVID-19 in their respective populations. Other movement restrictions, including curfews, were enforced with strict punishments.
|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 USD 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. In 2020, the government simplified the process for victims of domestic violence to obtain safety and protection orders against their abusers. Marital rape was also made a criminal offense in 2016. In June 2020, the government of Nauru announced that it would introduce harsher laws for sex offenders, including by reducing the ability of sex offenders to receive bail and introducing laws that prevent the age of the perpetrator a mitigating factor in sex offences.
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, regarding 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 U.S. State Department, there have been no reports of human trafficking in Nauru in recent years.
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