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The government of President Anote Tong faced accusations of abuse in the disbursement of government-funded university scholarships. No elections or other major policy debates occurred during 2006.
Kiribati, a constitutional republic, gained independence from Britain in 1979. The country consists of 33 atolls scattered across nearly 1.5 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean, as well as Banaba Island in the western Pacific. Twenty atolls are inhabited, and most face possible inundation as sea levels rise. Most of the government’s revenue comes from the sale of fishing licenses to foreign countries, foreign aid, remittances from workers abroad, and a trust fund established with income from phosphate mining on Banaba Island.
Chinese military ambitions in the Pacific and competing offers of development assistance from China and Taiwan have been major issues in Kiribati politics in recent years. President Teburoro Tito’s refusal to release details about a land lease to China to establish a satellite-tracking facility led to a no-confidence vote against his government in March 2003. General elections in July 2003 brought opposition candidate Anote Tong to power. Tong terminated the 15-year lease to China and restored ties with Taiwan in 2004.
No elections or major policy debates occurred in 2006. The main issue for the government of President Tong was an accusation that officials had mismanaged government-funded scholarships. The opposition party alleged that students who passed the test for the scholarships were denied assistance, while those who failed obtained funds.
Kiribati is an electoral democracy. The 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections were considered free and fair. The president is popularly elected in a two-step process, with Parliament nominating candidates from its own ranks and voters then choosing one as president. Forty of the representatives in the 42-member Parliament (Maneaba ni Maungatabu) are chosen by universal adult suffrage, one is nominated by the Rabi Island Council in Fiji, and the attorney general holds a Parliament position ex officio. (Rabi Island is a part of Fiji, but many residents there are of Kiribati origin. The British forced them to move there from Banaba Island when phosphate mining made Banaba uninhabitable.) The president, vested with executive authority by the constitution, is limited to serving three four-year terms.
The major parties are the Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) and the Maneahan Te Mauri, which won 17 and 16 seats, respectively, in the last elections in 2003. The other two parties are Maurin Kiribati Pati and the National Progressive Party. Political parties in Kiribati are loosely organized and lack fixed ideologies or formal platforms. Geographical, tribal, and personal loyalties are more important determinants of political affiliation.
Official corruption and abuse are serious problems, and the government has not shown a commitment to address them. Kiribati was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is generally respected, but the government has a record of restricting opposition criticism. For example, the Newspaper Registration Act of 2005 gives the state power to censor articles that could incite or encourage crime or disorder and to shut down any publication against which a complaint has been filed. The law was passed after embarrassing accounts of government abuses were published in a monthly political pamphlet published by BTK. The BTK pamphlet is owned by Ieremia Tabai, who is also publisher of the weekly Kiribati Newstar and owner of the radio station Newair FM 101, to which the government had denied a broadcast license until 2002. Tabai is also a former president and a current BTK member of Parliament. The government owns Te Uekera , one of the country’s two newspapers, and a radio station. Churches also publish several newsletters and other periodicals. Internet access is available but not widespread due to cost and a lack of infrastructure outside the capital.
There were no reports of religious oppression or restrictions on academic freedom. The expansion of access to and quality of education at all levels, however, is seriously restricted by a lack of resources. For example, secondary education is not available on all islands, and there is a shortage of qualified teachers. A memorandum signed in August 2006 between the government and the University of the South Pacific will lead to the creation of a new campus in Kiribati.
Freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively are generally respected. A number of nongovernmental groups are involved in development assistance, education, health, and advocacy for women and children. Only about 10 percent of the workforce belongs to unions, the largest of which is the Kiribati Trade Union Congress, with about 2,500 members. The law provides for the right to strike; the last such action took place in 1980.
The judicial system is modeled on English common law and provides adequate due process rights. It consists of the high court, a court of appeal, and magistrates’ courts; appeals may go to the Privy Council in London. The president makes all judicial appointments. Internal security is maintained by a 260-person police force that performs law enforcement and paramilitary functions. The country has no military forces, but Australia and New Zealand provide defense assistance under bilateral security agreements. Traditional customs permit corporal punishment, and island councils on some outer islands occasionally order such punishment for petty theft and other minor offenses.
Citizens enjoy freedom of movement. The government does not use forced exile, but village councils have used this punishment.
The government is the main employer, and many residents practice subsistence agriculture. The economy also depends considerably on foreign assistance and generates a small sum from selling fishing licenses to foreign fishing fleets. The main exports are dried coconut meat and fish. Interest from a well-managed trust fund built on royalties from phosphate sales has balanced the national budget and kept the country debt free.
Economic opportunities for women are limited. Discrimination against women is common in the traditional, male-dominant culture. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women and children are often associated with alcohol abuse. Prostitution and sexual harassment are illegal, and neither is reported to be widespread. Growth in the number of HIV/AIDS cases, which reached 46 by the end of 2004, remains a matter of concern.