Vanuatu | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In April, a minor member of the governing coalition withdrew its support for Prime Minister Barak Tame Sope. After several attempts by the parliamentary speaker to block a no-confidence motion, the acting chief justice ordered parliament to resolve the impasse, and Sope was ousted in a vote shortly thereafter. Opposition leader Edward Natapei was then voted in as the new prime minister. The new government initiated an inquiry into Sope's dealings with a controversial Indian businessman who was given letters of credit worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and in November, Sope was charged with two counts of forgery.

Located in the southwestern Pacific, this predominantly Melanesian archipelago, formerly the New Hebrides, was an Anglo-French condominium until it became independent in 1980. The condominium agreement divided the islands into English- and French-speaking communities, creating rifts that continue today. In 1999, Prime Minister Donald Kalpokas called on all government ministries to use both English and French, the country's two official languages, in their work.

Politics in the islands are also divided between the English- and French-speaking communities, and factional rivalries contribute to frequent changes of government. The first postindependence government, led by Prime Minister Father Walter Lini's anglophone Vanua'aku Pati (VP) party, largely excluded francophones from key posts. In 1991, a divided VP ousted Lini, who left to form the National United Party (NUP).This split the anglophone vote and allowed the francophone Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) to win a plurality in the December 1991 elections and form a government under Maxime Carlot. Numerous coalition governments have held power in the past five years. In November 1999, Sope, of the Melanesian Progressive Party was chosen prime minister after winning 28 votes in the 52-seat parliament. The new government promised to reduce the power of department heads, to review the recruitment of foreign advisers, and to reconsider the value-added tax.

In 1999, the government introduced the Comprehensive Reform Program after the exposure of alleged corruption and abuses by senior government officials, including reports that several high-ranking politicians were involved in selling passports to foreign nationals. Underwritten by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Comprehensive Reform Program includes an overhaul of state administration and increased private sector development. The government would also reduce the country's public service sector by about ten percent and enact a strict leadership code of conduct. In August, the ADB announced a program to assist Vanuatu's legal sector in order to increase the efficiency of the State Law Office.

To reduce reliance on overseas aid, the country has also been working to develop alternative income sources. The sale of fishing licenses to foreign fishing companies is now an important source of income for the government. Vanuatu was accused by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of involvement in money laundering activities in its bid to set up an offshore banking industry. It joined seven other Pacific Islands to sign the "Pacific Islands Prudential Regulation and Supervision Initiative" to end illicit financial operations in the region. In late October, Vanuatu completed negotiations to join the World Trade Organization.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Vanuatu can change their government democratically. The constitution vests executive power in a prime minister. The unicameral, 52-member parliament is directly elected for a four-year term. A largely ceremonial president is elected for a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of the 49 members of parliament and the 6 provincial council presidents. The 1998 national elections, in which 216 candidates contested 52 seats, were regarded as generally free and fair.

Although the judicial system is generally independent, the government has, at times, attempted to pressure the largely expatriate judiciary in politically sensitive cases. During a four-week nationwide state of emergency in 1998, the police arrested more than 500 suspected rioters in January 1998, and there were credible reports that police assaulted or otherwise poorly treated prisoners. Eighteen police and military officers were charged with intentional assault, but were cleared in 1999 because of a lack of evidence. In 1999, the Ombudsman's Office reported that the country's jails fail to meet the minimum international standards and the constitutional rights of inmates are often violated. In May, an Australian tourist serving a six-month sentence went on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions in Port Vila.

In this multiparty state, there is considerable freedom for the media. There are independent newspapers as well as political party newsletters. In April 1999, the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation decided to allow pay-television to commence service. In June 2000, the enactment of the Freedom Telecommunications Law ended the monopoly of Telecommunications Vanuatu Limited, and a new bilingual paper, Port Vila Presse, was launched in November. Nonetheless, the government owns most of the country's media outlets, including a television station serving the capital, two radio stations, and the Vanuatu Weekly newspaper. In January 2001, following the publication of a series of reports on government dealings with overseas businessmen, the prime minister attempted to deport the U.K.-born editor of the Trading Post newspaper, Marc Neil-Jones. However, the deportation order was cancelled by the supreme court.

Religious freedom is respected in this predominantly Christian country. Freedom of assembly and association is upheld. There are five active, independent trade unions operating under the umbrella of the Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions, although more than 80 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Unions can exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively.

The country's small ethnic-minority communities are discriminated against in land ownership. Women have limited opportunities in education and politics, and recent high-profile court cases involving violence against women strengthened the call for more public education on the issue and for an increase in the number of women in the judicial system. Women's groups also demanded stricter sentences for sex offenders.