Vanuatu | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Following a snap general election in July 2004, parliament elected Kalkot Mataskelekele as the new president on August 16 and confirmed Serge Vohor as the new prime minister. In September, the parliamentary opposition led a failed no-confidence vote against Vohor. To promote greater political stability, Vohor proposed several constitutional amendments, which must be voted on in a public referendum in 2005.

Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands lying 1,300 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. The British and French jointly governed it as a unique Anglo-French "condominium" in 1906 until it achieved independence in 1980. The Anglo-French legacy continues to split society along linguistics lines in all spheres of life from politics to religion and economics.

The left-leaning Vanua'aku Party (VP) led the country from 1980 through 1991. 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 in 1991. Serge Vohor, who headed a dissident faction of the UMP, replaced Carlot Korman in 1995. Barak Sope of the Melanesian Progressive Party took power in 1999 when Vohor was ousted by a no-confidence vote. Edward Natapei of the VP became prime minister in 2001.

Faced with a possibly successful no-confidence vote, Natapei called for a snap election in June 2004 and the election was held a month later. Independent candidates won 6 of the 52 seats, reflecting widespread public frustration with party and factional politics. However, no party won a clear mandate. Negotiations led parliament to elect Kalkot Mataskelekele, a former Supreme Court justice and a drafter of the constitution, as president. Vohor was chosen as prime minister to lead a coalition government. However, the issues in question were not resolved; a no-confidence vote called in September to unseat Vohor failed.

In December 2004, parliament approved the holding of a referendum in early 2005 on amendments to the constitution. If approved, elected representatives would lose their seats if they move from one political party to another after an election, no-confidence votes would be limited to the 12 months after the general election and the last 12 months of the prime minister's four-year term, and parliamentary terms would be extended from four to five years. These amendments aim to restore stability to government, which has been severely compromised by intense rivalries between political parties and the frequent use of no-confidence votes to topple governments as power alignments shift.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Vanuatu can change their government democratically. The constitution provides for parliamentary elections every four years. The prime minister, who appoints his own cabinet, is chosen from within the 52-member parliament to head the government. Members of parliament and the heads of the six provincial governments also form an electoral college to select the president for a five-year term. The president is the head of state, a largely ceremonial post. The National Council of Chiefs works in parallel with the parliament and exercises authority mainly over language and cultural matters.

No-confidence votes have forced several changes of government in recent years. Parliamentary coalitions have been formed and dissolved with increasing frequency since the 1990s, and fraud and bribery have become widespread in elections.

Many political parties are active. The leading parties are the Vanua'aku Party and the National Union Party, which took eight and ten seats, respectively, in the last election in June 2004 and formed a coalition government. Another top vote getter was the Union of Moderate Parties, which took nine seats. Other political parties are the Vanuatu Republic Party, the People's Democratic Party, the National United Party, the Melanesian Progressive Party, the Greens and the John Frum Movement, which is also a religious group. However, party loyalty is weak. Politicians frequently switch affiliations and rivalries are intense.

Corruption is a problem but not pervasive. In 2001, then prime minister Barak Sope was forced to resign after allegations of corruption caused him to lose a parliamentary vote of no confidence. There have been individual reports of police corruption, but it does not appear widespread. Since 2003, the government has strengthened laws to stop money laundering and tax evasion in order to protect its offshore banking business, a significant source of revenue. These efforts helped persuade the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to remove Vanuatu from the list of uncooperative tax havens in May 2003.

The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press. The state-owned Television Blong Vanuatu broadcasts in English and French. The weekly Port Vila Press and the privately owned Vanuatu Daily, Nasara, and Port Vila News supply international, national, and local news. Most media outlets deliver information in Bismala (a pidgin used throughout the islands), English, and French. The number of mobile phone and Internet users, although rising, remains small because of high costs and limited access outside the capital of Port Vila.

The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom. Port Vila hosts the Emalus Campus of the University of the South Pacific.

There have been no reports of government restrictions on civil society groups, and nongovernmental organizations are active in a variety of spheres. Many receive support from foreign private foundations and bilateral aid donors. Public demonstrations are permitted by law and respected by the government in practice. Workers can organize unions, bargain collectively, and strike. There are five independent trade unions organized under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions, which represents about 40 percent of the country's 25,000-person workforce.

Although the judiciary is generally independent, it is weak and inefficient. Lack of resources has kept the government from hiring and retaining qualified judges and prosecutors. Criminal defendants are often held for long pretrial detentions, and prison conditions are poor. Vanuatu has no armed forces. The Vanuatu Mobile Force is a parliamentary wing of the small police force; both are under the command of a civilian police commissioner. There have been reports of police abuse, but such incidents appear to be infrequent and not widespread or severe.

The vast majority of the population is engaged in either subsistence farming or fishing. In January, parliament passed a new law to stop all mixed-race and naturalized citizens from farming kava, a native herb that has gained popularity among health supplement consumers in the West. Tourism, the civil service, and offshore banking provide employment in the service sector.

In September, the National Council of Chiefs passed a motion to require people to carry permits for movement between provinces because of concerns about crime in the capital.

Violence against women is common and particularly severe in rural areas. Spousal rape is not a crime, and no law prohibits wife beating or sexual harassment. Most cases go unreported because the victims fear reprisal or are discouraged by family pressure, and the police and courts generally hesitate to intervene or impose stronger punishment for offenders. Women's rights leaders consider village chiefs to be major obstacles to improving conditions for women. The traditional practice of "bride payment," or a dowry, is still widely used, which critics charge encourages the view of women as property.