Freedom in the World
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In December 2000, Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana suffered a heart attack and died immediately after a speech at a public function. In February 2001, Faimalaga Luka was elected as his successor by the parliament after a period of official mourning. Tuvalu, along with several other Pacific Island nations, received a request in November from Australia to shelter asylum seekers from the Middle East whom Australia refused to accept. In early December, the government collapsed after four members of parliament turned against the prime minister and voted in support of a no-confidence motion. Koloa Talake, one of the floor-crossers, was elected as prime minister by a slim majority on December 13.
Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is a small, predominantly Polynesian country, consisting of nine atolls stretching over 500,000 miles of the western Pacific Ocean. The islands were proclaimed a British protectorate with the Gilbert Islands (now independent Kiribati) in 1892 and were formally annexed by Britain in 1915--1916, when the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony was established. The Ellice and Gilbert Islands separated in October 1975, and the former were renamed Tuvalu. The country became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1978. In Tuvalu's first postindependence general election in September 1971, Dr. Tomasi Puapua was elected prime minister. In April 1999, parliament elected Ionatana Ionatana, a former education minister, as the new prime minister. Tuvalu became the 189th member of the United Nations in 2000.
The primarily subsistence economy consists mainly of coconuts, taro, and fishing. Much of the government's revenue comes from the sale of stamps and coins, the sale of fishing licenses to foreign fishing companies, and remittances by some 1,500 Tuvalu citizens working overseas (mostly as merchant seamen or as phosphate miners on Nauru and Kiribati). Interest from the Tuvalu Trust Fund, established in 1987 by major aid donors and totaling $35 million in 2000, covers one-fourth of the annual budget. Trust Fund earnings have financed the upgrading of schools and fisheries centers, as well as the devolution of power to local communities.
In 2000, the government found another novel way to bring in revenue. A contract to lease the country's Internet domain name (.tv) to a California firm will bring the country at least $50 million over a 12-year period. Some of the money has already been used to pave roads and build schools. With a relatively healthy financial situation, Tuvalu can afford to be selective about monetary offers. After careful consideration the government in early July rejected an offer of more than $2 million per year from the Maharishi Spiritual Movement in return for being allowed to establish a small Vaticanlike sovereign city-state near the international airport.
As a low-lying island-state, with a maximum height of just 16 feet above sea level, Tuvalu is highly concerned about the effects of global climate change. Tuvalu is one of 16 countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which urges national action and international cooperation to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In July, Tuvalu appealed to Australia and New Zealand to help resettle its population in the event that the islands are threatened by rising sea levels. In October, New Zealand agreed to accept an annual quota of Tuvaluan citizens as refugees.
Citizens of Tuvalu can change their government democratically. The 1978 constitution vests executive power in a prime minister and a cabinet of up to four ministers. The 12-member parliament, or Fale I Fono, is directly elected for a four-year term. The prime minister appoints and can dismiss the governor-general, who is a Tuvaluan citizen and represents the queen of England, who is head of state, for a four-year term. The governorgeneral appoints the cabinet members and can name a chief executive or dissolve parliament if its members cannot agree on one. However, his power to veto government measures was abolished under a constitutional amendment in 1986. Each of the country's nine atolls is administered by directly elected, six-person councils, which are influenced by village-based hereditary elders who wield considerable traditional authority. Political parties are legal, but no formal parties have been established, although there is an opposition group within parliament. Most elections hinge on village-based allegiances rather than policy issues. A planned referendum on the future government of Tuvalu has been delayed until early 2002.
The judiciary is independent. Citizens receive fair public trials with procedural safeguards based on English common law and have a right of ultimate appeal under certain circumstances to the Privy Council in London. The 32-member police force is under civilian control.
Freedom of speech and of the press are respected. The government broadcasts over Radio Tuvalu and publishes the fortnightly newspaper Tuvalu Echoes in the Tuvaluan language and English, and there is a monthly religious newsletter. Many islanders have satellite dishes in order to receive foreign TV. Although the majority of the population belongs to the Protestant Church of Tuvalu, all religious faiths can practice freely.
The government respects freedom of assembly and association. Workers are free to join independent trade unions, bargain collectively, and stage strikes. Only the Tuvalu Seamen's Union, with about 600 members, has been organized and registered. No strikes have ever occurred, largely because most of the population is engaged outside the wage economy. Civil servants, teachers, and nurses, who total fewer than 1,000 employees, have formed associations, but these do not yet have union status.
Citizens are free to travel within the country and abroad. Traditional social restrictions limit employment opportunities for women, though many are securing jobs in education and health care and are becoming more politically active. Although gender discrimination exists, violence against women appears rare.