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Intense political rivalry continued unabated in Nauru in 2004, bringing the government to a virtual standstill and adversely affecting an already dire economy. In June, a no-confidence vote ousted President Rene Harris and his cabinet, and Ludwig Scotty was selected by parliament to succeed Harris. October parliamentary elections resulted in a legislative majority for Scotty supporters and a political mandate for much-needed economic reforms.
Nauru, a tiny Pacific island state located 1,600 miles northeast of New Zealand, was a German protectorate from 1888 until the close of World War I, in 1917, when Australia began administering it under a League of Nations mandate. The Japanese occupied Nauru during World War II, but Australian administrators returned to Nauru after the war under a UN mandate. Nauru gained independence in 1968, adopting a modified form of parliamentary democracy.
Severe party and factional competition have produced several leadership changes in recent years. The use of no-confidence votes has been a common tool to oust the president and his cabinet. Such intense political rivalry has been a hindrance to sustaining various policies, including those supporting economic development.
On January 8, 2003, Harris was ousted by a parliamentary vote of no confidence following opposition allegations of economic mismanagement and corruption. Just days after, Nauru's chief justice ruled that the 8 to 3 no-confidence vote was invalid without an absolute majority in the 18-member parliament and ordered that Harris be reinstated. Parliament voted Bernard Dowiyogo to replace Harris, but the Supreme Court barred Dowiyogo from claiming the presidency. The speaker of parliament resigned in protest over the Supreme Court ruling. The parliament then refused to nominate a new speaker, without whom a new parliament session cannot convene to pass legislation or a new budget.
This impasse ended with Dowiyogo's death in March 2003 in Washington, D.C., following heart surgery. Derog Gioura was appointed acting president to lead the caretaker administration until new elections were held in May 2003. Scotty was elected as the new president, but was ousted by a no-confidence vote just four months later. The parliament again chose Harris to lead the government.
Just months after he resumed power, another no-confidence vote was cast in February 2004. Harris held onto power when a tie resulted, but he was ousted by another no-confidence vote in June 2004. Again, parliament elected Scotty to succeed Harris; Riddel Akua was elected speaker of parliament. However, parliament's deadlock over the budget caused Scotty to dissolve parliament in early October and to declare a state of emergency. A new election on October 23 produced a clear parliamentary majority for Scotty, giving his government a strong mandate to push for tough reforms to restore the island nation's economic health.
Nevertheless, economic improvement remained illusive throughout the year. Phosphate, once plentiful and mined by Australia for use as fertilizer, is almost entirely exhausted, and the mining industry has left behind broken lands and other environmental problems. More than 80 percent of this 8-square-mile island republic is uninhabitable. At one time, phosphate mining made Nauru one of the richest in the world in per capita income, but financial mismanagement by the government squandered much of this wealth. A trust fund built on phosphate mining royalties is likely to be depleted in a few years. Nauru is highly dependent on foreign aid, and the country is also saddled with a large foreign debt relative to its size.
Recent administrations have been seeking new ways to generate income - including passport sales and offshore banking operations - but with varying results. Since 2001, Nauru has served as a refugee-processing and detention center for Australia in exchange for financial aid; the country provides temporary housing for hundreds of mainly Middle Easterners seeking asylum in Australia. Nauru also obtained U.S. agreement for additional financial aid in exchange for the establishment of an intelligence listening post in the country. The country switches diplomatic recognition between China and Taiwan to secure the most financial aid from the two competitors. Nauru switched recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in July 2002. In 2003, Nauru resumed official ties with Taiwan in exchange for Taiwanese assistance to settle Nauru's outstanding loans of $2.7 million for a Boeing 737 jet aircraft owed to the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Citizens of Nauru can change their government democratically. The 18-member unicameral legislature is elected from 14 constituencies by popular vote for three-year terms. Members of parliament choose from among themselves the president and vice president. The president is the head of state and chief executive. Suffrage is universal and compulsory for all citizens 20 years and older.
As an offshore banking center, Nauru has been implicated in international money laundering. The country was also under international pressure, particularly from the United States, to crack down on passport sales when two alleged al-Qaeda operatives were arrested in Malaysia carrying Nauruan passports. In 2003, the government announced that it would close its offshore banking operation, suspend its investor passport program, and update its banking laws and financial sector legislation that year. Political rivalry, however, has kept the government from moving forward with any of these plans. Nauru was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
There have been no reports of government monitoring or censorship of any media. The country has no regular print media, but foreign publications, the majority in English, are freely admitted and widely available. The government publishes occasional bulletins and the opposition publishes its own newsletters. The government owns and operates the only radio station and Nauru TV. However, a private network provides sports news coverage. Internet connection began in 1998 and the government is the sole provider of Internet services. Internet use is constrained by cost and the lack of reliable infrastructure outside the capital. Nauru's communication system is fragile: television service was unavailable for nearly two months in 2003 when a frequency amplifier broke.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. There were no reports of government suppression of academic freedom.
The government respects the right of assembly and association in practice. There are a few advocacy groups for women, development-focused groups, and religious organizations. No trade unions or labor protection laws exist in this largely agriculture-based, subsistence economy.
The judiciary is independent, and defendants generally receive fair trials and representation. The Supreme Court is the highest court when addressing constitutional issues, and the parliament cannot overturn court decisions. Appeals in civil and criminal cases can be lodged with the high court of Australia under the terms of a bilateral agreement. Nauru has no armed forces. Traditional reconciliation mechanisms rather than the formal legal process are used in many cases, usually by choice but sometimes under communal pressure. Defense is the responsibility of Australia under an informal agreement. A civilian head controls the 100-person police force. Police abuse is rare; however, foreign workers complain that the police are slow to act on cases filed against native employers.
Strict immigration rules govern foreign workers. Those who leave Nauru without their employer's permission cannot reenter, and immigrant workers must leave Nauru within 60 days of termination of employment.
The law provides equal freedom and protection for men and women, but societal pressures limit opportunities for women to fully exercise these rights. Prostitution is illegal and not widespread. Sexual harassment is a crime, but spousal rape is not. Domestic violence is frequently associated with alcohol abuse. Although the government and judiciary generally respond to cases filed, most incidents are reconciled informally within the family or communally by traditional leaders. As a result, reliable figures for domestic abuse and sex crimes are not available.