Freedom in the World
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Nauru in 2006 pressed Australia to resolve the status of Mohammed Sagar, who was for a time the last inmate at an Australian-funded detention center for asylum seekers on the island. Most other detainees had been transferred to Australia or allowed to go free, but Canberra considered Sagar a security risk. A Scandinavian country agreed to grant him asylum in December. Meanwhile, Nauru continued to struggle with the economic vacuum left by the decline of phosphate mining.
Nauru, located 1,600 miles northeast of New Zealand, is the world’s smallest republic. It was a German protectorate from 1888 until Australian troops seized it during World War I. The League of Nations granted a joint mandate to Australia, Britain, and New Zealand to govern the island in 1919. The Japanese occupied Nauru during World War II, and in 1947, the United Nations designated it as a trust territory under Australia. Nauru gained independence in 1968, became an associate Commonwealth member in 1969, and joined the United Nations in 1999. Rising sea levels threaten the future of the island and its people.
Nauru’s once-plentiful supplies of phosphate, mined by Australia for use as fertilizer, are almost entirely exhausted, and the mining industry has left behind severe environmental problems. More than 80 percent of the 8-square-mile island is uninhabitable. Phosphate mining had made Nauru one of the richest countries in the world in per capita income, but the government squandered much of this wealth through financial mismanagement. The country is now saddled with a large foreign debt, and the trust fund built on phosphate mining royalties is diminishing rapidly.
Recent governments have tried different ways to generate income, with little success. The island’s remote location limits its attraction to travelers, and a passport-sales scheme resulted in corruption scandals. Money laundering tied to Nauru’s offshore banking operations put the country on international blacklists and restricted its access to international loans, forcing it to crack down on the industry. With few viable economic alternatives, foreign development assistance has become a major source of income for the government. Since 2001, Nauru has served as a refugee-processing and detention center for Australia in exchange for millions of dollars in financial aid. The island provided temporary housing for hundreds of mainly Middle Eastern refugees seeking asylum in Australia, but the program was phased out amid criticism by human rights groups, and by the end of 2005, only two detainees remained. Nauru also receives financial aid from the United States in exchange for the establishment of an intelligence listening post in the country. Finally, the country has switched diplomatic recognition between China and Taiwan to maximize the financial aid it receives from the two competitors. The last switch was in May 2005, when Nauru broke off relations with China to restore official ties with Taiwan.
Intense political rivalry and the use of no-confidence votes have toppled several recent governments. However, elections in October 2004 produced a clear parliamentary majority for Ludwig Scotty, giving his government a strong mandate for economic reforms. Reform measures have included a complete review of employment levels and pay scales for all public servants, increased import duties for most goods, and higher government fees and charges. The government also began to trace $1.3 million in missing funds from the $7.4 million generated from passport sales. In 2005, the government launched a constitutional review to assess whether amendments are needed to improve political stability. One change under consideration would restrict the use of no-confidence votes to dismiss governments.
Nauru in 2006 sought to resolve the status of the last detained asylum seekers on the island, Mohammed Sagar and Mohammad Faisal, both Iraqis whom Australia had deemed security threats. Faisal was moved to a hospital in Australia in August due to concerns that he was suicidal, leaving Sagar, who had spent five years on the island, on his own. To pressure Canberra to decide on his future, Nauru asked the Australian government to pay $75,000 per month for his 30-day visa renewals. An undisclosed Scandinavian country agreed to accept him in December, apparently resolving the matter. However, Australia in September had transferred seven new Burmese refugees to Nauru.
Nauru is an electoral democracy. The 2004 elections were deemed free and fair by international observers. The 18-member unicameral legislature is elected from 14 constituencies by popular vote for three-year terms. The Parliament chooses the president and vice president from among its members. The president is the head of state and chief executive. Suffrage is universal and compulsory for all citizens age 20 and older. The political party system is relatively informal, but notable factions include the Nauru First Party and the Democratic Party.
There were no new reports of serious or widespread corruption in 2006. Nauru was not rated in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government does not restrict or censor the news media. Local journalists produce a number of weekly and monthly publications, and foreign dailies, most of them in English, are freely admitted and widely available. The government publishes occasional bulletins, and the opposition publishes its own newsletters. Radio Nauru and Nauru TV, which are owned and operated by the government, broadcast content from Australia, New Zealand, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and other international sources. Internet service began in 1998, but access is constrained by cost and a lack of infrastructure outside the capital.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, which the government generally respects in practice. There have been no reports of government suppression of academic freedom. The school system, like other public services, is starved for funds. In 2006, New Zealand offered assistance to acquire new school materials, improve infrastructure, and develop the curriculum.
The government respects freedom of assembly and association. There are a small number of advocacy groups for women, development-focused groups, and religious organizations. The country lacks trade unions and labor protection laws, partly because there is little large-scale, private employment.
The judiciary is independent, and defendants generally receive fair trials and representation. The Supreme Court is the highest authority on constitutional issues, and the Parliament cannot overturn court decisions. Appeals in civil and criminal cases can be lodged with the high court of Australia. Traditional reconciliation mechanisms, rather than the formal legal process, are used in many cases, usually by choice but sometimes under communal pressure. A civilian official controls the 100-person police force. Police abuse is rare, although foreign workers have complained that the police are slow to act on cases filed against native employers. Nauru has no armed forces; Australia provides national defense under an informal agreement.
The law provides equal freedom and protection for men and women, but societal pressures limit the ability of women to exercise their legal rights. Sexual harassment is a crime, but spousal rape is not. Domestic violence is frequently associated with alcohol abuse. Production of illicit alcohol spiked dramatically in 2006 after a major tax hike on beer in 2005; the government has since cut the tax.