Vanuatu | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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Ham Lini replaced Serge Vohor as prime minister in December 2004. The government rejected multiple applications in 2005 by the National Worker's Union to stage a demonstration. Meanwhile, President Kalkot Matas Kelekele asked the nation to consider choosing one language to unite the population divided by linguistic and tribal identities.

Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands, some with active volcanoes, lying 1,300 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. The British and French jointly governed it as an Anglo-French "condominium" in 1906 until it achieved independence in 1980. The Anglo-French legacy continues to split society along linguistic lines in all spheres of life, from politics to religion and economics. Around 75 percent of the population lives in rural areas and engages in subsistence agriculture. Remittances from workers overseas account for about 30 percent of export earnings.

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 an imminent no-confidence vote, Natapei called for a snap election in June 2004, and the election was held a month later. No party won a clear mandate, reflecting widespread public frustration with party and factional politics. The parliament elected Matas Kelekele, a former Supreme Court justice and a drafter of the constitution, as president, and Vohor was chosen prime minister to lead a coalition government. Vohor pushed to pass several controversial constitutional amendments, including barring no-confidence votes for 12 months before and after a parliamentary term, requiring a by-election in any constituency where the member crossed the floor, and extending parliamentary terms from four to five years. These proposals aimed to restore stability to the government, which had been severely compromised by political rivalries and the frequent use of no-confidence votes to topple governments as power alignments shifted. The parliament approved these proposals for a constitutional referendum in 2005, although by year's end it had not held the required national referendum on ratification.

Vohor also pushed to restore ties with Taiwan without first consulting with members of the parliament. The parliament responded by ousting him in a no-confidence vote in December 2004 and replacing him with Ham Lini, a brother of Father Walter Lini, a founding father of Vanuatu. Lini underscored that economic reform and strengthening the rule of law would be his top priorities.

Politics in Vanuatu is driven by linguistic and tribal identities. In 2005, President Matas Kelekele encouraged the nation to adopt Bismala (a pidgin used throughout the islands) as the national language and to accept English and French as both official languages and use them as principal languages in education.

Although there is only one confirmed case of HIV/AIDS in Vanuatu, public health experts are worried that high rates of sexually transmitted diseases in the country and high rates of HIV/AIDS infection in neighboring countries make Vanuatu highly vulnerable.

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. However, party loyalty is weak, individual rivalries are intense, and politicians frequently switch affiliations. The leading parties are the VP, the National Union Party, and the UMP.

Corruption is a growing problem at all levels of government. 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. While Sope was sentenced in 2002 to three years in prison for forging government guarantees, he was subsequently pardoned by President Fr. John Bani. Alfred Maseng Nalo was elected president in April 2004, as he was serving a two-year suspended sentence for corruption, but he was forced to step down when his criminal record was revealed. Vanuatu was not ranked in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press. The state-owned Television Blong Vanuatu broadcasts in English and French. Radio Vanuatu is the only radio station. 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, English, or 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.

The law provides for freedom of association and assembly, and the government generally respects these rights. Civil society groups are active in a variety of issues. Many receive support from foreign private foundations and bilateral aid donors. 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. Workers can organize unions, bargain collectively, and strike. Public demonstrations are permitted by law and generally respected by the government in practice. However, in 2005, the police repeatedly rejected applications by the National Worker's Union to stage a demonstration to support 26 workers dismissed by Air Vanuatu. The police did not give clear reasons for the rejection, and protesters were arrested.

The judiciary is generally independent, but 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. Vanuatu has no armed forces. The Vanuatu Mobile Force is a paramilitary 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. Prisons, built mostly in the colonial period, were said to be overcrowded and in disrepair. In September, several inmates escaped, citing poor prison conditions as the main reason.

Most people engage in subsistence farming or fishing. In 2004, parliament passed a new law to stop all mixed-race and naturalized citizens from farming kava to protect indigenous farmers. Kava is 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 2004, the National Council of Chiefs adopted 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 dowry, is still widely used, which critics charge encourages the view of women as property. Men and women are supposed to enjoy equal rights, and divorce was approved in 1986. However, the government has yet to pass a family law bill to provide protections to women and children despite multiple readings in parliament. Abortion is permitted only to save the life of a woman or to preserve the woman's physical and mental health. Abortion is not available on request, nor for pregnancies due to rape or incest. There is a general lack of women in positions of authority in government and in the private sector.