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Tuvalu's frequent changes of government continued in 2004, when Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga was ousted in a no-confidence vote in August and replaced by Maatia Toafa.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands became a British protectorate in 1892 and a British colony in 1916. This island state of nine atolls is situated in the central South Pacific Ocean. During World War II, the United States used the northernmost atoll of the Ellice Islands as a base to fight the Japanese. In 1974, as Britain was preparing the colony for independence, the Polynesian Ellice Islanders voted to separate themselves from the Micronesian Gilbertese, and the country attained independence on October 1, 1978, under the precolonial name of Tuvalu. (The Gilbert Islands, a group of 16 islands, form part of Kiribati.)
In Febraury 2001, Faimalaga Luka became prime minister after the sudden death from a heart attack of Ionatana Ionatana two months earlier. In December 2001, Luka was ousted in a no-confidence vote and replaced by Kolou Telake. In the July 2002 general elections, in which Telake failed to win a seat, Sopoanga was elected prime minister.
Intense political competition brought Tuvalu's parliament largely to a standstill in 2003. Sopoanga lost power after a by-election in May 2003 but refused to concede. In July 2003, the opposition took Sopoanga to court for refusing to convene parliament after the election of the new speaker in mid-June. Parliament eventually reconvened following by-elections in October, which gave Sopoanga a majority in parliament when opposition members agreed to join his cabinet.
Factional politics did not appear to have eased in 2004, with a no-confidence vote ousting Sopoanga in August. In October, an 8-7 vote elected Maatia Toafa as the new prime minister; Sopoanga was chosen for deputy prime minister. Frequent changes of government as a result of no-confidence votes in parliament have sustained a debate in the last decade over whether citizens should be allowed to choose their prime minister directly rather than through parliament.
The threats of climate change and rising sea levels continue to worry the population of these low-lying islands. Several years ago, the government asked Australia to agree to take its entire population in the event the islands are flooded, but Canberra refused.
Citizens of Tuvalu can change their government democratically. Tuvalu is a member of the Commonwealth, and the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, is represented by a governor-general who must be a citizen of Tuvalu. Governor-general Faimalaga Luka was appointed by parliament in September 2003. The prime minister, chosen by parliament, leads the government. The unicameral, 15-member parliament is elected to four-year terms. A six-person council administers each of the country's nine atolls. Council members are chosen by universal suffrage to four-year terms. There are no formal political parties, although there are no laws against their formation.
Tuvalu is one of the few places among Pacific Islands where corruption is not a serious problem.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. In 2001, the country's sole radio station, Radio Tuvalu, was privatized. The government voiced objections to some comments made on the station in 2001 but did not interfere with broadcasts. The sole television station, owned and operated by the government, went off the air in 2001 for financial reasons. Broadcast resumed in 2002 for several hours a day. Many residents use satellite dishes to access foreign programs. There is one fortnightly newspaper, Tuvalu Echoes. The first Internet connection was made in 1999. The government does not restrict access, but penetration is largely limited to the capital because of cost and connectively issues.
Religious freedom is generally respected in practice. The vast majority of the population, some 97 percent, is Congregational Protestant. Religion is a big part of life, and Sunday service is typically considered the most important weekly event. Academic freedom is also generally respected.
Nongovernmental groups across all levels of society provide a variety of health, education, and other services for women, youths, and the population at large. Public demonstrations are permitted and workers are free to organize unions and choose their own representatives for collective bargaining. Being a largely subsistence economy with tiny service and manufacturing sectors, Tuvalu has only one registered trade union: the Tuvalu Seaman's Union has about 600 members who work on foreign merchant vessels. Workers have the right to strike, but no strikes have occurred in the island state's history. Public sector employees, who total fewer than 1,000, are members of professional associations that do not have union status.
The judiciary is independent and provides fair trials. Tuvalu has a two-tier judicial system. The higher courts include the Privy Council in London, the court of appeal, and the high court. The lower courts consist of senior and resident magistrates, the island courts, and the land courts. The chief justice, who is also the chief justice of Tonga, sits on the high court about once a year. A civilian-controlled, 70-member constabulary force maintains internal order. Prisons are sparse but there were no reports of abuses.
Two-thirds of the population is engaged in subsistence farming and fishing. The country has no sub-surface fresh water and increasing salinization of the soil is a serious concern. Geographical isolation limits options for economic development. Tuvalu generates income using various means, including the sale of coins and stamps, money sent back by islanders working overseas, sale of tuna fishing licenses to foreign fisheries, and lease of the country's Internet domain name, ".tv" to foreign firms. Another 10 percent of its annual budget is derived from the Tuvalu Trust Fund, a well-run overseas investment fund set up by the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Korea in 1987 to provide development assistance.
Although there is general respect for human rights, traditional customs and social norms condone discrimination against women and limit their roles in society. Violence against women is rare. Rape is a crime punishable by law, but spousal rape is not included in this definition. Prostitution is illegal, but no law specifically targets sexual harassment.