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Palau’s government in 2006 approved new requirements for annual random drug tests for elected representatives and police officers as well as stringent new measures that will further restrict the hiring of Bangladesh workers, and stiffened the penalty for rape of a female minor. Also in 2006, the capital was moved from Koror to a new site in Melekeok.
The United States administered Palau, which consists of 8 main islands and more than 250 smaller islands, as a UN Trusteeship Territory from 1947 until 1981, when it became a self-governing territory. Full independence was achieved in 1994 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States. Under the terms of the compact, the United States agreed to grant Palau $442 million in economic aid between 1994 and 2009 and provide for the country’s defense in exchange for U.S. military access to the archipelago until 2044.
Vice President Tommy Esang Remengesau was elected president in a narrow victory over Senator Peter Sugiyama in November 2000. In the November 2004 presidential poll, Remengesau was reelected, winning two-thirds of the ballots.
In a referendum held concurrently with the 2004 general election, voters endorsed the initiation of a constitutional convention in 2005 to consider amendments to the constitution. Matters for consideration included allowing dual citizenship, limiting terms in the Parliament to three, making legislative posts part-time positions, switching from a bicameral to a unicameral legislature, and allowing presidential and vice presidential candidates to run for election as a team. The constitution currently states that only citizens may vote and own land in Palau. A proposed amendment would allow Palauans living in the United States (about 25 percent of all Palauan citizens) and elsewhere to acquire citizenship in their resident countries without losing their right to vote and own land in Palau. Other measures aim to reduce factional disputes and the cost of running a legislature for the country’s small population. The review was completed in mid-July 2005 with the approval of 25 proposed amendments. Citizens will put the measures to a vote in the next general election, scheduled for November 2008.
Also in 2005, three state governors were convicted of bribery, theft, misconduct, and other crimes and removed from office. The Speaker of the House of Delegates was charged with 34 criminal counts involving the use of public funds for personal purposes.
The number of human and drug trafficking, prostitution, and money laundering cases has increased in recent years. The government has said more resources are needed to improve law enforcement and the judiciary and to implement a new border-management system.
Concern about the spread of drug addiction prompted the Senate to unanimously pass a bill in September 2006 that would require all elected and appointed officials and law enforcement officers to accept random drug tests at least twice a year. The Senate passed another bill to stiffen the penalty for rape of a female younger than 18 to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of 30 years in prison. The bill also permits prosecution of spousal rape. At year’s end, both bills were being considered in the House of Delegates.
In December, the government passed a bill preventing the hiring of all Bangladesh workers in Palau and forbidding those in the country from applying for extensions. The number of Bangladeshi workers more than doubled from 163 in 2004 to 425 in 2005, and language barriers and fraud among recruiters have resulted in social tensions and problems for the Palauan government, which does not have formal diplomatic ties with Bangladesh.
Palau is an electoral democracy. The bicameral legislature, the Olbiil Era Kelulau, consists of the nine-member Senate and the 16-member House of Delegates. Legislators are elected to four-year terms by popular vote. The president and vice president are also elected to four-year terms by popular vote. There is no limit on the number of terms, except that the president may serve only two terms consecutively. The country is organized into 16 states, each of which is headed by a governor. President Tommy Esang Remengesau was elected in a narrow victory in November 2000 and secured a second term with a two-thirds majority in November 2004. The capital, previously located in Koror, was moved to a new complex in Melekeok in 2006.
There are no political parties, but there are no laws against their formation. Political alliances, quickly formed and dismantled, dictate politics and in recent years have had a serious destabilizing effect on governance.
Official corruption and abuses are serious problems. Responding to public dissatisfaction, the government has made more deliberate efforts to address the matter in recent years, especially with respect to senior officials. Palau was not rated in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and the press is respected. There are three major print publications: Tia Belau and Palau Horizon are English-language weeklies and Roureur Belau is a Palauan weekly. There are five privately owned radio stations and one privately owned television station. Most households receive cable television, which rebroadcasts U.S. and other satellite television programs. The internet is accessible without government interference and has helped to connect islanders with their fellow citizens living abroad. Diffusion is limited by cost and a lack of access outside the main islands.
Citizens of Palau enjoy freedom of religion. Although the government requires religious organizations to register with the Office of the Attorney General, no application has ever been denied. There have been no reports of restrictions on academic freedom, and the government provides well-funded basic education for all.
Freedom of assembly and association are respected. Many nongovernmental groups focus on youth, health, and women’s issues. No laws or policies bar formation of trade unions. The largely subsistence agricultural economy is heavily dependent on aid and rent from the United States under the compact, as well as remittances from citizens working overseas. The government and the tourist industry are the main employers.
The judiciary is independent and trials are generally fair. A 300-member police and first-response force maintains internal order. Palau has no armed forces; the United States provides external defense under the terms of the compact. There have been no reports of prisoner abuse or extreme hardship for prisoners.
Foreign workers account for about a third of the population and 73 percent of the workforce. There have been reports of discrimination against and abuse of foreign workers, and the law bars foreign workers from changing employers inside Palau. In December 2005, the government decided to impose a moratorium on workers from Bangladesh when local employment contracts for several fell through, and the absence of official ties with Bangladesh complicated efforts to repatriate them. Marriages of convenience between islanders and foreigners are also a problem. Foreigners are said to use fake marriages to extend their stay in Palau and to enter the United States, which grants Palauan citizens visa-free entry and residence under the compact. There have been reports of human trafficking from China, the Philippines, and Taiwan into Palau as a conduit to the United States.
There is high regard for women in this matrilineal society, in which land rights and familial descent are traced through women. This has allowed many women to be active in both traditional and modern sectors of the economy, as well as in politics. A small number of domestic abuse cases, many linked to alcohol and drug abuse, have been reported. According to the police, drugs and alcohol are involved in 90 percent of all crimes. Prostitution and sexual harassment are illegal, and the law prohibits rape, including spousal rape.