Freedom in the World
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A migrant crisis gripped the country when 51 Africans, mostly from Eritrea, were rescued and brought to Malta in July 2006. The rescue vessel was barred from docking until other countries agreed to take in most of the migrants. Separately, a March report by the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights noted that Malta had done away with an administrative practice in which irregular migrants, including asylum seekers, were subject to unlimited detention.
Malta is a small island group with ties to both the European and Arab worlds. After gaining independence from the British in 1964, the country joined the Commonwealth and became a republic in 1974. From 1964 to 1971, Malta was ruled by the Nationalist Party (PN), which pursued a pro-Western foreign policy. In 1971, the Labor Party (MLP) took power and moved the country toward nonalignment and a special friendship with leftist governments in Libya and Algeria. The PN returned to power in 1987, and in 1990, the country submitted its application for full membership in the European Union (EU)—then the European Community.
After a brief interlude of MLP rule from 1996 to 1998, Malta continued on a pro-European path that culminated in March 2003 with a national referendum on EU accession. Malta was the first of that year’s 10 candidate countries to hold such a referendum, and the measure was approved by a vote of 54 percent. The country formally joined the EU in May 2004 as part of the bloc’s largest expansion since its founding in the years after World War II. In July 2005, the Maltese Parliament ratified the proposed EU constitution.
National elections in 2003 returned the incumbent PN to power with around 52 percent of the vote and 35 seats in Parliament. The MLP came in second with about 48 percent of the vote and 30 seats. The smaller Alternativa Demokratika (AD) lost support compared with the elections in 1998.
In March 2004, the House of Representatives elected a new president of the republic, Edward Fenech Adami, the outgoing prime minister and veteran leader of the ruling PN. Lawrence Gonzi, the deputy prime minister, took over the premiership.
A migrant crisis gripped the country in July 2006 when 51 Africans, mostly from Eritrea, were rescued by a Spanish trawler in Libyan waters and brought to the islands. Maltese officials refused to allow the ship to dock for several days, saying they were already overrun with African immigrants and arguing that the rescue had taken place outside their jurisdiction. After the intervention of the EU and a decision by Spain to take most of the migrants, Malta allowed the vessel to dock and took in three Africans who needed medical treatment. Between January and September 2006, some 1,700 migrants landed on Malta, making the country a major destination for irregular immigrants.
Separately, in a March 2006 follow-up report on an earlier assessment, representatives of the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights noted that the country had done away with an administrative practice in which irregular migrants, including asylum seekers, were detained indefinitely. However, the country had not yet passed any legislation to back up the changes. The report also cited concerns about overcrowding in prisons and the treatment of sex offenders and homosexual inmates.
Malta is an electoral democracy. Members of the 65-seat unicameral legislature, the House of Representatives, are elected through a national system of proportional representation with a single-transferable-vote (STV) arrangement. Unlike traditional proportional representation systems, in which voters choose a party list, the STV mechanism allows the voter to rank-order competing candidates by preference. Parliament is elected for a five-year term, and lawmakers in turn elect the president, who also serves for five years. The president names the prime minister, usually the leader of the majority party or coalition. Elections are generally free and fair.
The ruling PN and opposition MLP dominate party politics, but the smaller Alternativa Demokratika also competes.
The EU’s 2003 monitoring report, which sought to determine whether candidate countries were adopting the union’s body of law, criticized Malta for lacking a specific anticorruption program, which remained the case through 2006. The issue of corruption emerged in the country after a chief justice in 2003 was forced to resign because of a bribery scandal over a prison sentence appeal. Malta was ranked 28 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. According to the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) and the U.S. State Department, instances of government corruption are rare.
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. There are several daily newspapers and weekly publications in Maltese and English, as well as radio and television stations. The islands also have access to Italian television, which many Maltese watch. The government does not block internet access.
The constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and the state grants subsidies only to Catholic schools. While the population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, other religious groups are tolerated and respected. There are small communities of Muslims, Jews, and Protestants, the latter being mostly British retirees. There is one Muslim private school in the country. Construction on a government-approved Muslim cemetery began in 2005.
Academic freedom is respected, and there is generally free and open discussion in the country. However, an amendment to the criminal code makes incitement to racial hatred a crime punishable by a prison term of six to eight months.
The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights. International and domestic nongovernmental organizations investigating human rights issues are able to operate without government interference. The law recognizes the right to form and join trade unions, and limits on the right to strike were eased in 2002. However, a compulsory arbitration clause in the country’s Employment and Industrial Relations Act allows the government to force a settlement on striking workers. This clause, which permits compulsory arbitration to be held even if it is requested by only one of the parties involved, contravenes the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the government insists that it rarely invokes this clause, which is used only when all other channels for arbitration have been exhausted. In 2005, the government froze the assets of the General Workers’ Union (GWU) following a dispute between the GWU and a government-owned shipyard.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. The Police Ordinance Act, which took effect in 2003, provides a number of reform measures related to policing and criminal justice, including the establishment of a witness protection program and a mechanism for handling both internal and external complaints directed toward the police. Prison conditions generally meet international standards, although the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights has objected to prison conditions for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. An independent report on the military’s violent January 2005 suppression of a protest by detained immigrants was released in December 2005. The report raised concerns about the use of excessive force by soldiers and recommended an internal inquiry by the armed forces and better training for soldiers to deal with such situations.
The government respects personal autonomy and freedom. However, divorce is illegal and violence against women continues to be a problem. Malta prohibits all abortions, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest; in November 2004, a UN committee urged Malta to reconsider this strict policy. Women occupy only 6 of the 65 seats in Parliament. However, women now hold two cabinet posts: minister of Gozo (the second-largest island in the group) and minister for Family and Solidarity. These women are the first to attain such high-ranking government positions.
Malta, which is a destination for men and women trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, remains on Tier 2 in the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons report. The placement indicates that Malta does not fully comply with minimum antitrafficking standards but is making significant efforts to do so. Although the authorities have prosecuted several cases and cooperated with investigations by foreign governments, they have not screened for victims among incoming migrants or launched public-awareness programs.