Samoa has a democratic political system with regular elections, though the same political party had been in government for decades as of 2020, and only traditional heads of families are eligible to run as candidates. The judiciary is independent, and civil liberties are generally respected.
- Samoa was one of the first countries in the world to close its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it successfully kept the virus out during the year. Only one case, involving a citizen returning from abroad, was reported.
- In December, the parliament passed a package of three controversial bills that, among other changes, would remove the Land and Titles Court—which adjudicates customary matters—from the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, potentially endangering the rule of law and exacerbating conflicts between customary authority and individual rights. The measures were awaiting the head of state’s formal assent at year’s end, and legal challenges were expected.
- Sharp disagreement over the bills, which also drew objections from the Samoa Law Society and other experts, had led to resignations and defections from the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) earlier in the year. A new opposition party, Fa‘atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST), was formed in July, and in September it announced an alliance with two other parties ahead of the April 2021 elections. Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa resigned later in September and joined FAST.
|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; a limit of two terms was adopted through a 2019 constitutional amendment. 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. The prime minister as of 2020, Tuila‘epa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sa‘ilele Malielegaoi of the ruling HRPP, had held his post since 1998, having been reelected most recently in 2016.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The Legislative Assembly as of 2020 consisted of 47 members elected in traditional village-based constituencies and two members elected by voters in “urban” constituencies—including citizens of mixed or non-Samoan heritage who lacked village ties. Additional members could 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 elections, 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 elections, 12 of the independents joined the HRPP, and the 13th joined the opposition. The next general elections, which would be held under a new constituency system, were scheduled for April 2021.
|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 11 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. However, in 2019 the Tuila‘epa government won passage of a constitutional amendment that eliminated the special urban constituencies and ensured that all districts—now numbering 51—would be village-based and represented by a single member. The amendment was set to take effect after the current parliament’s term ended in 2021.
In September 2020, two potential candidates filed a legal challenge against the 2019 electoral law, arguing that rules requiring candidates to have rendered three years of traditional service to their villages were unclear and discriminatory. The government agreed to amend the law and address the plaintiffs’ specific complaints, but disputes over the details of the service requirement continued.
|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 elections, lost this status, leading opposition members to criticize the rule for producing a “one-party state.”
A number of parties have since emerged to challenge the HRPP. In 2018, Samoa First registered as a political party and aimed to compete in the 2021 elections. In 2019, the Samoa National Democratic Party (SNDP) was reregistered; it had been Samoa’s main opposition party between 1988 and 2003. Tumua ma Puleono registered in May 2020, and FAST was formed that July.
|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, having been in power since the 1980s, developed an effective campaign machinery during its incumbency, raising concerns about whether its long tenure was due to its popularity or features of the electoral system that may put the opposition at a disadvantage.
In September 2020, FAST, Tumua ma Puleono, and the SNDP announced that they would contest the 2021 elections as an alliance under the FAST banner. They benefited from a number of defections from the HRPP during the year, including that of Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa, who resigned later in September over the government’s three controversial reform bills.
|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.
|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 women and members of ethnic minority groups have full voting rights, individuals must hold a customary matai title in order to qualify as electoral candidates, meaning fewer women are eligible in practice. A sizeable minority of villages still do not allow women to hold matai titles.
The 2016 elections 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 gender at birth but maintain a feminine gender identity, can also serve as matai. However, there were no elected fa‘afafine parliamentarians as of 2020.
|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 typically weak opposition presence in the parliament has undermined its role as a check on the executive, and the democratic credentials of the government have been tarnished somewhat by restrictive features of the electoral system.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Independent entities including the Office of the Ombudsman, the Public Service Commission, 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.
In April 2020, the Samoa Observer reported apparent conflicts of interest within the government, finding that the minister for works, transport, and infrastructure owned several businesses in New Zealand and Samoa and could personally benefit from contracting decisions he helped oversee in his official capacity.
|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 2019, the government proposed a legislative amendment that would mandate heavy prison terms and fines for public servants who disclose official information to a third party. While the measure had not passed as of 2020, the government responded to leaks to the media by warning of possible prison terms under existing laws for employees who breached confidentiality rules attached to their positions.
The new parliament building, which opened in 2019, lacks a dedicated press gallery, and journalists have often been excluded from the public gallery in practice, limiting the transparency of legislative proceedings.
|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 2019, the feature film Rocketman was banned for depicting same-sex sexual activity, which is illegal in Samoa.
The prime minister has repeatedly criticized or refused questions from certain journalists and outlets. He has also threatened to ban social media platforms in response to critical commentary about the government.
|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, a 2017 constitutional amendment shifted references to Samoa being a Christian nation from the constitution’s preamble to its body text, meaning it 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.
In April and May 2020, the Samoan Law Society and the country’s ombudsman expressed concerns that provisions in the government’s three proposed reform bills—the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, the Lands and Titles Court Bill 2020, and the Judicature Amendment Bill 2020—could limit religious freedom by removing the Land and Titles Court from the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, meaning the latter could no longer review decisions on village customary matters that violated individual rights.
|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.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Most Samoans face no serious practical constraints on private discussion or the expression of personal views, though the threat of criminal defamation charges remains a problem for some prominent critics of the government.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is protected by law and respected in practice. Beginning in March 2020, the government imposed restrictions on public gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Demonstrators nevertheless turned out later in the year to protest the government’s three controversial bills, avoiding the health restrictions in part by organizing processions of vehicles. Other demonstrations called on the government to help repatriate Samoans stranded abroad by pandemic-related travel bans.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, operate freely.
|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.
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 right 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 has ratified the International Labour Organization’s eight fundamental conventions.
|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 head of state on the advice of 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.
However, the reform bills adopted in December 2020 featured a number of provisions that could undermine judicial independence and the rule of law. One component would allow the head of state, on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, to dismiss Supreme Court judges; this had previously required a two-thirds vote in the parliament, which is still required to remove the chief justice. The legislation also separates the judicial system into two distinct and potentially conflicting structures, with one, headed by the Supreme Court, handling civil and criminal matters and the other, the Land and Titles Court, overseeing customary matters including communal land. The Land and Titles Court would have its own appellate body, and individuals would no longer be able to appeal its decisions to the Supreme Court.
|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. The December 2020 legal reforms appeared to eliminate individuals’ ability to appeal village council decisions to the Supreme Court, raising doubts about how conflicts between customary communal authority and the constitutional rights of individuals would be resolved.
|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 lack adequate resources, resulting in poor conditions including overcrowding, as well as breakdowns in security. In March 2020, as many as 36 people escaped from Tanumalala prison, though all were eventually recaptured. As a result of the incident, which followed an earlier escape in 2019, the prisons commissioner resigned.
|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 protections 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 subject to a rarely enforced criminal code provision that prohibited the “impersonation” of a woman; a 2013 amendment removed this stipulation.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
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