Vanuatu | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Vanuatu's civil liberties rating improved from 3 to 2 due to changes in the survey methodology.


Located 1,300 miles northeast of Sydney in the South Pacific, Vanuatu is an archipelago of approximately 80 islands with a mainly Melanesian population. The two largest islands, Espiritu Santo and Malakula, make up nearly one-half the total land area. Known to Europeans as the New Hebrides, the islands were jointly administered by Britain and France from 1906 until 1980, when the country gained independence.

The unique Anglo-French "condominium" colonization divided Vanuatans into English- and French-speaking communities. Prior to independence, English-speaking politicians, such as the late Father Walter Lini and other leaders of his Vanua'aku Party, were the main champions of independence, while French-speaking political leaders tended to favor continued colonial rule. The Francophone Nagriamel movement, led by Jimmy Stevens, led a brief secessionist revolt on Espiritu Santo at independence that was quickly put down.

Lini's left-leaning Vanua'aku Party led the new nation from independence until 1991. That year, a split within the party allowed Maxime Carlot Korman, leader of the francophone Union of Moderate Parties (UMP), to become Vanuatu's first French-speaking prime minister. After the 1995 elections, Carlot was succeeded by Serge Vohor, who headed a dissident UMP faction. Since then, leadership of the country has changed hands several times through no-confidence votes, as one parliamentary coalition after another collapsed. Many of the rifts between English- and French-speaking politicians mended in the 1990s, as parties increasingly formed coalitions that crossed linguistic lines.

The current prime minister, Edward Natapei, of the Vanua'aku Party, took office in 2001 in a coalition government with the UMP after a parliamentary vote of no confidence ousted Prime Minister Barak Sope, in office since 1999. Natapei retained his post after his Vanua'aku Party formed a new coalition with the UMP following the May 2002 elections. The UMP, led by former prime minister Vohor, won the most seats of any party in the 52-seat parliament, taking 15 compared to the Vanua'aku Party's 14.

No single theme dominated the election campaign, although a key issue was the government's pledge to bring back a program aimed at making public officials more accountable. Widely supported by international aid donors, the Comprehensive Reform Plan (CRP) was introduced by the Vanua'aku Party in the 1990s before being scrapped by then prime minister Sope, who heads the opposition Melanesian Progressive Party. Sope and opposition leader Willy Jimmy, head of the social-democratic National Unity Party, said during the campaign that if elected they would not bring back the CRP.

Sope was jailed in July on fraud charges stemming from his tenure as prime minister, though he was later pardoned on medical grounds by President John Bani. Prime Minister Natapei set up a commission of inquiry in November to examine the president's controversial move. Meanwhile, 4 senior police officers received 2-year suspended jail terms in December for mutiny and other charges in connection with the August arrest of 15 senior officials in response to the appointment of a new police commissioner. The brazen arrests and resulting light sentences raised questions about whether Vanuatu's police force is fully under civilian control.

Some 80 percent of Vanuatans are either subsistence farmers or fishermen. The service sector consists primarily of tourism, the civil service, and offshore banking and makes up the largest share of economic output. Visiting Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in December praised the government for tightening laws to help prevent the country's tax haven status from being used to finance terrorism.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Vanuatu can change their government through elections. The nongovernmental Election Observers Group, which monitored the May 2002 polls, called for a review of the electoral law with a view to curbing fraud and bribery.

The 1980 constitution created a directly elected parliament whose 52 members serve 4-year terms. The largely ceremonial president is chosen by an electoral college consisting of the parliament and presidents of Vanuatu's regional councils.

Vanuatu's courts "generally are independent of executive interference," according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. The common law judiciary generally affords citizens fair trials, although the court system is inefficient and lacks enough qualified judges and prosecutors. As a result, criminal defendants often are held for long periods before their trials, and prison conditions for the 30-odd inmates are poor, with the central prison in the capital, Port Vila, "dilapidated and not reliably secured," the report added.

Vanuatu's press is generally free, notwithstanding the government's controversial deportation in 2001 of a leading newspaper publisher, Mark Neil-Jones of the Trading Post. Authorities claimed that he had revealed state secrets in his reporting on official corruption. The chief justice overturned the deportation within a week, and Neil-Jones returned to Vanuatu and resumed his work. The government runs a weekly newspaper, two radio stations, and a television station that serves Port Vila. At least three private newspapers compete with the state media.

Women enjoy equal rights under the law, although they generally are limited to traditional family roles in this male-dominated society. Families often are reluctant to educate girls, and social norms discourage women from owning land and encourage them to focus on childbearing.

Violence against women, particularly wife beating, is common, according to the U.S. State Department report. Although courts prosecute some offenders, most cases of violence against women, including rape, go unreported because the victims are unaware of their rights or fear reprisals, the report added. Moreover, police are reluctant to intervene in domestic violence cases because these are widely viewed as private matters. Religious freedom generally is respected in this mainly Christian society.

Vanuatu's five trade unions are independent and are grouped under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions. Only about 1,000 of the country's 25,000 wage or salary earners belong to unions. The workplace safety and health law is inadequate to protect workers engaged in logging, agriculture, construction, and manufacturing, and the labor department lacks sufficient resources to enforce the law effectively as it exists, according to the U.S. State Department report.