Samoa

Free
81
100
PR Political Rights 30 40
CL Civil Liberties 51 60
Last Year's Score & Status
81 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Samoa has a democratic political system with regular elections, though the same political party has been in government for decades, and only traditional heads of families are eligible to run as candidates. The judiciary is independent, and civil liberties are generally respected.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • In January, the parliament adopted a constitutional amendment that will redraw Samoa’s legislative constituencies. The amendment will take effect in 2021, after the current parliament’s term ends.
  • A measles outbreak that began in September caused the deaths of 81 people by year’s end, and prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. Public gatherings were restricted and schools were closed until the state of emergency ended in late December.
  • Three individuals, including Australia-based blogger Malele Atofu Paulo, were accused of conspiring to assassinate Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi in August; Paulo and another defendant pleaded not guilty and remained in custody at year’s end.

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? 3.003 4.004

The parliament elects a ceremonial head of state every five years; there are no term limits. By custom rather than constitutional requirement, the position is given to one of the country’s four paramount chiefs. In 2017, the parliament elected Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II as head of state.

The head of government is the prime minister, who requires the parliament’s support. Tuila’epa of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been in office since 1988, having been reelected most recently in 2016.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3.003 4.004

The Legislative Assembly (Fono) consists of 47 members elected in traditional village-based constituencies and 2 members elected by voters in “urban” constituencies—including citizens of mixed or non-Samoan heritage who lack village ties. Additional members can be added from among the unsuccessful candidates with the most votes in order to meet a minimum 10 percent quota of women members. Elections are held every five years.

In the 2016 parliamentary election, the HRPP won 35 of the 50 seats; one seat was added to meet the gender quota. Independents took 13 seats and the opposition Tautua Samoa Party (TSP) held two. After the election, 12 of the independents joined the HRPP, and the 13th joined the opposition. The HRPP retained a parliamentary seat in a March 2019 by-election, which was held after the incumbent died in office in January.

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? 3.003 4.004

The constitutional and legal framework for elections is largely democratic and fairly implemented. However, only citizens with matai status (chiefs or family heads) are allowed to stand as candidates. There are some 17,000 matai, but only about 10 percent are women. A 2015 amendment to the Electoral Act replaced two at-large seats representing voters of non-Samoan heritage with two “urban” constituencies with defined boundaries. They overlapped with territorial constituencies and pertained to voters who either lacked or chose not to register according to traditional village ties.

In January 2019, the Tuila’epa government proposed a constitutional amendment that would effectively redraw Samoa’s constituencies, ensuring that all districts would be represented by a single member; the urban constituencies introduced in 2015 would be eliminated under the proposal. The amendment was adopted by the parliament that month, and will take effect after the current body’s term ends in 2021. One of the two lawmakers who voted against the proposal was dismissed from the ruling HRPP in February.

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? 3.003 4.004

There are no major constraints on the formation and operation of political parties, but parties must win a minimum of eight seats to qualify for formal recognition within the legislature. The TSP, which fell from 13 seats to just three after the 2016 election, lost this status, leading opposition members to criticize the rule for producing a “one-party state.”

Two parties were launched or relaunched since 2016. In 2018, Samoa First registered as a political party and aims to contest the 2021 poll. In August 2019, the Samoa National Democratic Party (SNDP) was reregistered; the SNDP, which was Samoa’s main opposition party between 1988 and 2003, also plans to contest the 2021 election.

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? 3.003 4.004

There are no obvious obstacles that prevent the opposition from increasing its support and gaining power through elections. However, the ruling HRPP has been in power since 1988 and has developed an effective campaign machinery during its incumbency, raising concerns about whether its long stay in power is due to the party’s popularity or features of the electoral system that may put the opposition at a disadvantage.

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? 3.003 4.004

While voters and candidates are largely free from undue interference with their political choices, traditional village councils consisting of local leaders with matai titles exercise considerable influence through candidate endorsements. Those who use the electoral laws to challenge the councils’ preferred candidates in court have sometimes faced customary penalties such as banishment.

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 and ethnic minorities have full voting rights, but the fact that candidates must hold matai titles means fewer women are eligible to run for office. The 2016 election marked the first application of the gender quota ensuring that at least five parliamentary seats are held by women. If fewer than that number are elected in normal constituency contests, the unsuccessful female candidates with the most votes are awarded additional seats. One extra seat was consequently added to the 2016 parliament. Few women participate in village council meetings.

Members of the fa’afafine community, which includes Samoans who are assigned male at birth but maintain a feminine gender identity, can also serve as matai; however, there are currently no elected fa’afafine parliamentarians.

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? 3.003 4.004

The prime minister and cabinet determine and implement government policies without improper interference by outside groups. However, the weak opposition presence in the parliament undermines its role as a check on the executive, and the democratic credentials of the government are tarnished somewhat by restrictive features of the electoral system.

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

Independent entities including the Office of the Ombudsman, the Public Service Commission (PSC), and law enforcement agencies pursue allegations of corruption by public officials. However, corruption remains a problem and a cause of public discontent, and the government has at times resisted calls for a stronger response.

Several incidents of corruption and official misconduct came to light or were resolved in 2019. In March, two senior PSC members were charged with stealing over $100,000 in public funds. That same month, an immigration officer was found guilty of selling passports to foreign individuals between 2016 and 2017, and received a four-year prison sentence in late May. The chief executive of the Ministry of Justice, Papalii John Taimalelagi Afele, was dismissed over misconduct allegations in May on the PSC’s recommendation.

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

While the government generally operates with transparency, the effectiveness of the state auditing system remains the subject of public debate, and the country lacks a freedom of information law.

In September 2019, the government proposed a legislative amendment that would mandate prison terms and fines for public servants who disclose official information to a third party; the Journalists Association of Western Samoa (JAWS) denounced the proposal, which remained under consideration at year’s end, as “heavy-handed.”

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 3.003 4.004

Several public and privately owned print and broadcast news outlets operate in Samoa, and internet access has expanded rapidly in recent years. While press freedom is generally respected, politicians and other powerful actors have used libel or defamation suits to respond to remarks or stories about them. In 2017, the parliament passed legislation that reintroduced criminal libel, which had been abolished in 2013. Artistic works are also subject to government restrictions; in June 2019, the feature film Rocketman was banned for depicting same-sex sexual activity, which is illegal in Samoa.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3.003 4.004

Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed, and is mostly respected in practice. However, in 2017, the parliament passed the Constitution Amendment Bill, which shifted references to Samoa being a Christian nation from the constitution’s preamble to its body. As such, the text can potentially be used in legal action.

There is strong societal pressure at the village level—including from village councils—to participate in the activities of the main local church.

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 are no significant 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 serious constraints on private discussion or the expression of personal views. However, in July 2019, prominent Australia-based blogger Malele Atofu Paulo pleaded guilty to defamation, and was handed a seven-week prison sentence in October. Paulo had accused Prime Minister Tuila’epa of corruption and of involvement in the 1999 assassination of Samoan politician Luagalau Leva’ula Kamu.

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 law and respected in practice. However, public gatherings were banned during a state of emergency that was declared in November 2019 during a measles outbreak that killed 81 people by year’s end; the state of emergency expired in late December.

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? 3.003 4.004

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, operate freely.

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

Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike. Multiple unions exist, representing both public– and private-sector employees; these are often called “associations.” The Samoa Workers Congress (SWC) is an umbrella body for all workers’ unions. As of September 2019, it represented 4,198 workers, an increase from 2016, when 3,000 workers were represented.

Union members’ rights are governed by the constitution and the 2013 Labour and Employment Relations Act; the latter recognizes unions and employees’ roles and rights, the rights to collective bargaining, and rights to maternity and paternity leave, and mandates the establishment of a National Tripartite Forum, which provides for workers’ benefits and consults on employment policies and conditions. However, some cultural factors hinder the ability of workers and unions to pursue their rights.

Samoa became a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2005 and ratified the ILO’s eight fundamental conventions by 2008.

F Rule of Law

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

The judiciary is independent. The head of state, on the recommendation of the prime minister, appoints the chief justice. Other Supreme Court judges are appointed by the Judicial Service Commission, which is chaired by the chief justice and includes the attorney general and a Justice Ministry appointee. Judges typically serve until they reach retirement age, and cannot be removed arbitrarily.

In October 2019, the government issued the Samoa Law Reform Commission the task of elevating the Lands and Titles Court, which rules on customary matters, into a body that is coequal to the Supreme Court through new legislation; that work is ongoing at year’s end.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3.003 4.004

The authorities generally observe due process safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, and the courts provide defendants with the conditions necessary for a fair trial. However, village councils settle many disputes, and their adherence to due process standards varies. They have the authority to impose penalties including fines and banishment, though council decisions can be appealed in the court system.

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

Violent crime rates are relatively low. Police officers are occasionally accused of physical abuse. Prisons are under resourced, resulting in poor conditions for prisoners including overcrowding, as well as occasional difficulties keeping facilities themselves secure. In June 2019, Samoa opened a new prison in Tanumalala; two prisoners escaped from the prison in October. Prisons commissioner Taitosaua Edward Winterstein was suspended that month while an inquiry into the prison escape was conducted; his suspension was still in effect at year’s end.

In August 2019, police took three people accused of plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Tuila’epa into custody; a village matai reportedly handed the suspects over to the authorities that month, along with firearms allegedly intended for use in the assassination attempt. Blogger Malele Atofu Paulo and Lema'i Faioso Sione were charged with conspiracy to commit murder in September and remained in custody at year’s end, while a third individual accepted a guilty plea.

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 constitution prohibits discrimination based on descent, sex, religion, and other categories. The Labour and Employment Relations Act also prohibits discrimination against employees on such grounds as ethnicity, race, color, sex, gender, religion, political opinion, sexual orientation, social origin, marital status, pregnancy, HIV status, and disability. However, these are enforced unevenly. In practice women face some discrimination in employment and other aspects of life, and same-sex sexual activity remains a criminal offense for men. Ethnic Chinese residents at times encounter societal bias and restrictions on the location of their businesses.

Members of the fa’afafine community were previously subjected to a rarely enforced criminal code provision that prohibited the “impersonation” of a woman; a 2013 amendment removed this stipulation.

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? 3.003 4.004

While there are few constraints on freedom of movement, village councils still occasionally banish individuals from their communities as a penalty for serious violations of their bylaws.

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

Private business activity is encouraged, and property rights are generally protected, though roughly 80 percent of the country’s land is communally owned, meaning it is overseen by matai title holders and other village leaders. The rest consists of freehold and state-owned land.

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

While personal social freedoms are generally not restricted by law, domestic violence against women and children is a serious problem. The Crimes Act of 2013 made spousal rape a crime, and the Family Safety Act of 2013 empowers the police, public health officials, and educators to assist victims of domestic violence. Nevertheless, many victims do not report abuse due to strong social biases and fear of reprisal.

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

Individuals generally enjoy equality of opportunity and fair working conditions. However, most adults engage in subsistence agriculture, and local custom obliges residents to perform some labor on behalf of the community; those who fail to do so can be compelled.

On Samoa

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  • Global Freedom Score

    81 100 free