Freedom in the World
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General elections were held in Tuvalu in August 2006. Half of the elected members of Parliament were newcomers to the chamber, and Apisai Ielemia, a former civil servant, was chosen as prime minister.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands, situated in the central South Pacific Ocean, became a British protectorate in 1892 and a British colony in 1916. During World War II, the United States used the northernmost atoll of the Ellice Islands as a base to fight the Japanese. Polynesian Ellice Islanders voted to separate themselves from the Micronesian Gilbertese in 1974 as they moved toward independence. The Ellice Islands became an independent country in 1978 under the precolonial name of Tuvalu, while the Gilberts went on to become part of independent Kiribati. Climate change and rising sea levels threaten the population of these low-lying islands, which are only 4.5 meters above sea level.
The country has had several changes of government since 2001 due to intense personal and political rivalries and the frequent use of no-confidence votes. Individual and tribal loyalties rather than formal party affiliations drive political alliances, and elected representatives frequently change sides while in office. This situation has sustained a decade-long debate over proposals to introduce direct popular elections for prime minister.
Public disappointment with incumbent lawmakers led to a large voter turnout in the August 2006 general elections, with many first-time candidates winning Parliament seats. Some 6,000 registered voters out of a population of 10,000 went to the polls; of the 32 candidates, 18 (including two women) were newcomers to politics. Of the 15 seats in Parliament, 7 were taken by these newcomers representing constituencies in Nui (2), Nanumaga (1), Nanumea (1), Nukulaelae (1), Vaitupu (1), and Nukufetau (1). Apisai Ielemia, a former civil servant, was chosen as prime minister, and he would also hold the foreign affairs portfolio. On taking office, Ielemia promised to expand media freedom in response to criticisms from human rights groups that the Tuvalu Media Corporation, a public corporation that runs the sole radio and produces the only newsletter in the island republic, has limited coverage on politics and human rights. However, there were no criticisms of censorship or imbalances in reporting.
In July 2006, 300 Tuvaluan laborers who had worked in a Taiwanese-owned phosphate mine on Nauru were repatriated to Tuvalu. Many had refused earlier repatriation offers in order to seek back pay owed to them by their Taiwanese employer.
Tuvalu is an electoral democracy. It is also a member of the Commonwealth, and the head of state, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, is represented by a governor-general who must be a citizen of Tuvalu. The current governor-general is Filoimea Telito. The prime minister, chosen by Parliament, leads the government. The unicameral, 15-member Parliament is elected to four-year terms. A six-person council administers each of the country’s nine atolls. Council members are chosen by universal suffrage for four-year terms.
There are no formal political parties, although there are no laws against their formation. Political allegiances revolve around geography and personalities.
Tuvalu is one of the few places in the Pacific Islands where corruption is not a serious problem. The country was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. The country’s sole radio station, Radio Tuvalu, broadcasts a variety of domestic and international programs, including British Broadcasting Corporation news. The government runs a television station, but financial constraints limit broadcast time and the variety of programs. Many residents use satellite dishes to access foreign programming. There is one fortnightly newspaper, Tuvalu Echoes ; the government news sheet, Sikuelo o Tuvalu , is published in Tuvaluan. Both Radio Tuvalu and Tuvalu Echoes are operated by the Tuvalu Media Corporation, a public corporation. The government does not restrict internet access, but penetration is largely limited to the capital because of access costs and connectivity issues. Telecommunication links can be tenuous; for example, all telecommunication services were disrupted for two weeks in December 2005 when equipment malfunctioned and replacement parts had to be flown in from Fiji before service could resume.
Religious freedom is generally respected in practice. Religion is a major part of life in this overwhelmingly Christian country, and Sunday service is typically considered the most important weekly event. Academic freedom is also generally respected.
The constitution provides for freedom of association and assembly, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. For example, public demonstrations are permitted and nongovernmental groups provide a variety of health, education, and other services for women, youths, and the population at large. Workers are free to organize unions and choose their own representatives for collective bargaining. Workers have the right to strike, but no strikes have occurred in the country’s history. Public-sector employees, who total fewer than 1,000, are members of professional associations that do not have union status. With two-thirds of the population engaged in subsistence farming and fishing, Tuvalu has only one registered trade union—the Tuvalu Seaman’s Union, with about 600 members who work on foreign merchant vessels. In December 2005, Tuvalu joined the International Labor Organization.
The judiciary is independent and provides fair trials. Tuvalu has a two-tier judicial system. The higher courts include the Privy Council in London, the court of appeal, and the high court. The lower courts consist of senior and resident magistrates, the island courts, and the land courts. The chief justice, who is also the chief justice of Tonga, sits on the high court about once a year. A civilian-controlled, 70-member constabulary force maintains internal order. Prisons are Spartan, but there have been no reports of abuse.
Major sources of revenue for the state include funds generated from the sale of coins and stamps, sale of tuna-fishing licenses to foreign fleets, and lease of the country’s internet domain name, “.tv,” to foreign firms. Copra and handicrafts are Tuvalu’s main exports. About 10 percent of the annual budget is derived from the Tuvalu Trust Fund, a well-run overseas investment fund set up by Britain, Australia, and South Korea in 1987 to provide development assistance.
There is general respect for human rights, but traditional customs and social norms condone discrimination against women and limit their roles in society. Violence against women is rare. Rape is a crime punishable by law, but spousal rape is not included in the definition. No law specifically targets sexual harassment. Women enjoy equal access to education, although they remain underrepresented in positions of leadership in business and government.