PR Political Rights 37 40
CL Civil Liberties 55 60
Last Year's Score & Status
92 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Palau’s presidential republic is maintained through regular democratic elections. The judiciary and the media are independent, and civil liberties are generally upheld. The government has sought to combat official corruption in recent years. Many in the country’s large population of foreign workers remain vulnerable to exploitation.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • In October, the director of Palau’s Narcotics Enforcement Agency, Ismael Aguon, was a victim of an arson attack, in which his vehicle was set on fire. He believes the action could be interpreted as retaliation for a series of upcoming drug trials.
  • In April, Palau placed a moratorium on all cryptocurrencies, after the company Palau Coin claimed to be a government-backed venture favoring diplomatic ties with China, despite the country’s allegiances to Taiwan.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The president, who serves as both head of state and head of government, is directly elected for up to two consecutive four-year terms using a two-round system, with a runoff vote if no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round. President Tommy Remengesau won reelection in November 2016, defeating his brother-in-law, Senator Surangel Whipps, with 51.3 percent of the vote.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The bicameral National Congress consists of a 13-member Senate and a 16-member House of Delegates. The Senate is directly elected by block vote in one national constituency. Members of the House of Delegates are elected from single-member constituencies corresponding to the country’s 16 states, which vary in population. All members of the National Congress are elected for four-year terms. In the November 2016 elections, held concurrently with the presidential vote, 13 incumbents were returned to the House and 8 to the Senate.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4.004 4.004

Electoral administration is widely considered to be fair and impartial. A review of the Senate’s size and electoral system is undertaken every eight years by a Reapportionment Commission. In June 2016 the commission recommended that the Senate be maintained in its current form. In response to a citizen petition, the Supreme Court initially ruled that because the population had decreased, the number of senators should be reduced from 13 to 11, but the court restored the original plan after an appeal in October 2016.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 laws restricting the formation of political parties, but in practice all candidates run and compete freely as independents. Politicians tend to organize in loose political alliances, often based on clan or family relationships.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4.004 4.004

Although there are no political parties, lawmakers do organize into informal progovernment and opposition camps, and no single political force has control of the legislature. Power is transferred democratically between rival politicians. Remengesau returned to the presidency in 2013 by defeating the incumbent, Johnson Toribiong, in the 2012 election.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

Palau receives financial assistance from the United States under its Compact of Free Association, but the US government does not exert improper influence over the country’s internal politics. While the political views of traditional chiefs are respected, they do not have authoritative control over the choices of voters.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

Women generally have equal political rights in law and in practice. Some legislative seats at the state level are reserved for traditionally male chiefs, though chiefs in turn are customarily chosen by councils of women elders. In the last national elections, women won two seats in the House and two in the Senate.

About a third of the population consists of foreign nationals who do not have political rights in Palau. Citizenship must be inherited from at least one parent, as there are no provisions for naturalization.

In February 2019, former president John Toribiong launched a petition seeking to amend the constitution in order to end the acceptance of absentee ballots. Toribiong claims the petition is to combat the influence on the political realm that the increasing number of citizens living outside the country have. He believes that residents of Palau should have more say regarding the government and its policy decisions, than do citizens living abroad who pay no taxes and who Toribiong says are unaffected by their vote’s consequences.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4.004 4.004

Palau’s democratically elected government determines and implements policy without undue interference. Traditional chiefs formally play an advisory role regarding customary matters through the national Council of Chiefs. While they also exercise informal influence over government policy, this is widely seen as a positive check on potential mismanagement or abuse of power by elected officials.

The Compact of Free Association with the United States, in effect since Palau became independent in 1994, ensures self-government in the country but also provides for close military and economic relations with the United States, including responsibility for Palau’s defense. A scheduled 15-year review of the compact resulted in a 2010 bilateral agreement on development aid and other benefits to last until the next review in 2024, but legislation to implement that agreement remained stalled in the US Congress for several years, during which time Congress continued to appropriate basic aid funds on an annual basis. At the end of 2017, US President Donald Trump signed a defense bill that included implementing provisions for the compact review agreement. Negotiations for the extension of the compact beyond 2023 began in August 2019: the United States hopes an extension will counter Chinese influence in the region.

Palau reconfirmed its support and recognition of Taiwan as an independent state, amidst several other Pacific nations withdrawing their backing and strengthening ties with China.In late 2017, China’s government instructed agencies to cease commercial flights and group tours to the country—likely a response to Palau’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In September 2019, the Palau tourism industry was expected to be further impacted by tensions with the Chinese government. In April, Palau placed a moratorium on all cryptocurrencies, after the company Palau Coin claimed to be a government-backed venture favoring diplomatic ties with China, despite the country’s allegiances to Taiwan.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3.003 4.004

High-ranking public officials have faced corruption charges in recent years, and several have been convicted. The government and lawmakers have deliberated on strategies to deal with corruption more effectively, and in April 2017 the finance minister issued a statement to reiterate the government’s ethics rules and a whistleblower protection policy. The Office of the Ombudsman has asked for a clearer legal mandate with greater independence, as it currently operates as part of the president’s office under an executive order.

In October 2018, the European Union (EU) said that Palau authorities had pledged to implement certain reforms, and that it had consequently removed the country from its list of tax havens.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3.003 4.004

A 2014 Open Government Act provides for public access to official documents and hearings, and government officials are obliged to submit annual financial disclosures that are available to the public. However, authorities have sometimes resisted disclosing requested information, particularly at the subnational level.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 4.004 4.004

Freedom of the press is respected. There are several independent news outlets, including newspapers and broadcasters, but they often struggle financially. Regional and international news services are also available. Internet access has been hampered by high costs and lack of connectivity outside the main islands.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4.004 4.004

Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom are upheld in practice. Although religious organizations are required to register as nonprofit organizations, the process is not onerous or restrictive. Foreign missionaries are also required to obtain a permit.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4.004 4.004

There have been no reports of restrictions on academic freedom.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4.004 4.004

There are no constraints on political discussion, and the government does not monitor personal communications.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4.004 4.004

Freedom of assembly is protected by the constitution and respected in practice.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4.004 4.004

Nongovernmental organizations operate freely, with various groups focusing on issues such as environmental conservation, youth development, public health, and women’s rights.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3.003 4.004

Workers can freely organize unions and bargain collectively, but there are no laws specifically regulating trade unions or strikes or prohibiting antiunion discrimination. Union membership and activity are low in practice, as the private sector of the economy consists mostly of small, family-run businesses.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 4.004 4.004

The judiciary has a reputation for a high degree of independence and integrity. The president appoints judges to lifelong terms based on recommendations from an independent Judicial Nominating Commission, which is made up of three presidential appointees, three jurists named by their peers, and the chief justice.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4.004 4.004

The authorities generally uphold legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, and trial proceedings ensure due process.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4.004 4.004

Law enforcement agencies maintain internal order, and instances of abuse or impunity are rare, though overcrowding in the country’s limited detention facilities remains a problem. In October 2019, the director of Palau’s Narcotics Enforcement Agency, Ismael Aguon, was a victim of an arson attack, in which his vehicle was set on fire. He believes the action could be interpreted as retaliation for a series of upcoming drug trials.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3.003 4.004

The legal system prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, place of origin, and other categories. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected categories, but Palau repealed legal provisions that criminalized consensual same-sex sexual activity in 2014. Women generally enjoy equal treatment in practice.

Foreign nationals sometimes face discrimination regarding employment, education, and other matters. Growing tourism from China in particular has created jobs but also raised the cost of living, and some locals regard the presence of Chinese businesses and residents with hostility, although the number of Chinese tourists especially has drastically decreased in recent years due to Chinese state policy.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4.004 4.004

There are no significant restrictions on freedom of movement, including internal and international travel.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 legal framework generally supports property rights and private business activity, and the government has undertaken reforms to improve conditions in recent years, though some bureaucratic obstacles and corruption-related impediments persist.

Noncitizens cannot purchase land, which is inherited matrilineally among Palauans.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

Personal social freedoms are largely respected, and women have equal rights regarding marriage, child custody, and other personal status matters. Rape, including spousal rape, and domestic violence are criminal offenses, though instances of domestic abuse are often not reported to police.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3.003 4.004

Residents generally have access to economic opportunity, and the law provides some protections against exploitative labor practices. However, enforcement of such safeguards is inadequate, and foreign workers (one-third of Palau’s population are noncitizens) remain vulnerable to sexual exploitation, forced labor, or otherwise abusive working conditions in sectors including domestic service and fisheries. The minimum wage law does not apply to foreign workers. Some officials have been accused of complicity in human trafficking.

The 2019 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report noted that the government of Palau had taken efforts to combat the presence of human trafficking, although much action was needed. In recent years, the president has created a national action plan, funded an assessment of the extent of trafficking in Palau and the effectiveness of the government’s antitrafficking infrastructure, created a temporary shelter for people who have been trafficked, and established a trafficking hotline. However, standard operating procedures to refer survivors of trafficking to protection services, as well as the protection services themselves, are underfunded and inadequate, and the government has not investigated the indicators of trafficking in labor recruitment.

On Palau

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  • Global Freedom Score

    92 100 free