Vanuatu | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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The United States in March 2006 finalized an agreement under which Vanuatu would receive special development assistance due to its positive efforts to improve economic conditions. Also in 2006, the World Bank ranked Vanuatu as a fragile state, and an increased number of fake passports linked to human trafficking were reported. Paramount Chief Teriki Kalmari Peter Poilapa passed away in September.

Vanuatu, formerly known as the New Hebrides, is an archipelago of 83 islands, some with active volcanoes, lying 1,300 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. It was governed as an Anglo-French “condominium” from 1906 until it achieved independence in 1980. The Anglo-French legacy continues to split society along linguistic lines in all spheres of life, including politics, religion, and economics. Around 75 percent of the population lives in rural areas and engages in subsistence agriculture. Remittances from workers overseas account for about 30 percent of export earnings.

The left-leaning Vanua’aku Party (VP) led the country from 1980 through 1991. A split within the party allowed Maxime Carlot Korman, leader of the francophone Union of Moderate Parties (UMP), to become Vanuatu’s first French-speaking prime minister in 1991. Serge Vohor, who headed a dissident faction of the UMP, replaced Carlot Korman in 1995. Barak Sope of the Melanesian Progressive Party took power in 1999 when Vohor was ousted by a no-confidence vote. Edward Natapei of the VP became prime minister in 2001 and served until 2004, when he lost his mandate in a snap election.

No party won a clear mandate in the 2004 elections, an outcome that reflected the widespread public frustration with party and factional politics. The Parliament elected Matas Kelekele, a former Supreme Court justice and a drafter of the constitution, as president, and Vohor was chosen to lead a coalition government as prime minister. Vohor pushed for several constitutional amendments to improve government stability. They included measures to bar no-confidence votes for 12 months before and after a parliamentary election, require a by-election in any constituency whose representative changed parties, and extend parliamentary terms from four to five years. The Parliament approved these proposals for a constitutional referendum in 2005, but the vote has yet to be held. Vohor was thrown out of office in December 2004 by a no-confidence vote after he pushed to restore ties with Taiwan without first consulting with the Parliament. Ham Lini—a brother of Father Walter Lini, one of the founders of independent Vanuatu—was chosen as the new prime minister. Lini underscored that economic reform and strengthening the rule of law would be his top priorities.

In December 2005, the government sought to issue a second telephone license to raise revenue and increase competition, but the Supreme Court ordered the government to honor its telephone monopoly.

Vanuatu in March 2006 finalized an agreement with the United States under which the country would receive some $66 million in development assistance over five years from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account. The grant was meant “to reward sound policy decisions that support economic growth and reduce poverty.” The award, together with international media attention and revenue resulting from popular U.S. and Australian television shows shot in the country, bolstered Vanuatu’s economic position. However, real progress on economic reform and strengthening the rule of law remained difficult in a political environment dominated by ethnic, tribal, and personal rivalries. Such factors were also behind the World Bank’s rating of Vanuatu as a fragile state in its 2006 report Engaging with Fragile States: World Bank Support to Low-Income Countries under Stress .

Vanuatu saw an increase in the number of fraudulent passports reported in 2006. As in several other South Pacific countries, criminal groups were suspected of using such fake documents to traffic Asian migrants via Vanuatu to their final destinations.

A decision by tribal chiefs to order a member of a local family to leave Santo province was seen as setting a negative precedent with respect to civil liberties. The decision was prompted by local complaints and concerns about the individual’s alleged violent behavior.

In September, 80-year old Paramount Chief Teriki Kalmari Peter Poilapa passed away.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Vanuatu is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for parliamentary elections every four years. The prime minister, who appoints his own cabinet, is chosen by the 52-seat unicameral Parliament from among its members. Members of Parliament and the heads of the six provincial governments also form an electoral college that selects the president for a five-year term. The president is the head of state, a largely ceremonial post. The National Council of Chiefs works in parallel with the Parliament and exercises authority mainly over language and cultural matters.

No-confidence votes have forced several changes of government in recent years. Parliamentary coalitions have been formed and dissolved with increasing frequency since the 1990s, and fraud and bribery have become widespread in elections.

Many political parties are active. However, party loyalty is weak, individual rivalries are intense, and politicians frequently switch affiliations. The leading parties are the VP, the National Union Party, and the UMP. Politics in Vanuatu is driven by linguistic and tribal identities. In 2005, President Matas Kelekele encouraged the nation to adopt Bismala (a pidgin used throughout the islands) as the national language and to accept both English and French as official languages and use them as principal languages in education.

Corruption is a serious problem. In 2001, Prime Minister Barak Sope was forced to resign after allegations of corruption caused him to lose a parliamentary vote of confidence. Although Sope was sentenced in 2002 to three years in prison for forging government guarantees, he was subsequently pardoned by the president at the time, Father John Bani. In another case, Alfred Maseng Nalo was elected president in April 2004 while serving a two-year suspended sentence for corruption. He stepped down only when his criminal record was revealed. Vanuatu was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government generally respects freedoms of speech and the press. The state-owned Television Blong Vanuatu broadcasts in English and French. Radio Vanuatu is the only radio station. The weekly Port Vila Press and the privately owned papers Vanuatu Daily , Nasara , and Port Vila News supply international, national, and local news. Most media outlets deliver information in Bismala, English, or French. The number of internet users, although rising, remains small because of high costs and limited access outside the capital.

The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country. Members of the clergy have held senior government positions, including president and prime minister. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom. Port Vila hosts the Emalus Campus of the University of the South Pacific.

The law provides for freedoms of association and assembly, and the government generally respects these rights. Civil society groups are active on a variety of issues. Many receive support from foreign governments and private foundations. There are five independent trade unions organized under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions, which represents about 40 percent of the country’s 25,000 persons who are wage workers in the formal economy (a large number of persons in the 70,000-plus labor force are self-employed or part of the informal economy). Workers can organize unions, bargain collectively, and strike. In 2006, the government raised the monthly minimum wage to $209, effective May 2007. Public demonstrations are permitted by law and generally respected by the government in practice. However, in 2005 the police repeatedly rejected applications by the National Worker’s Union to stage a demonstration to support 26 workers dismissed by Air Vanuatu. The police gave no clear reason for the denial, and protesters were arrested.

The judiciary is generally independent, but it is weak and inefficient. Lack of resources has kept the government from hiring and retaining qualified judges and prosecutors. Criminal defendants are often held for long pretrial detentions. Vanuatu has no armed forces. The Vanuatu Mobile Force is a paramilitary wing of the small police force; both are under the command of a civilian police commissioner. There have been reports of police abuse, but such incidents appear to be infrequent and minor. In September 2005, several prison inmates escaped, citing poor conditions as the main reason. The government subsequently released 52 prisoners because of poor sanitary conditions. New Zealand has offered to help upgrade prison facilities.

Most people engage in subsistence farming or fishing. In 2004, Parliament passed a new law to stop all mixed-race and naturalized citizens from farming kava—a native herb that has gained popularity among health-supplement consumers in wealthy countries—in order to protect indigenous farmers. Tourism, the civil service, and offshore banking provide employment in the service sector. In September 2004, the National Council of Chiefs adopted a motion to require people to carry permits for movement between provinces because of concerns about crime in the capital.

Like several other Pacific Island nations, Vanuatu is suspected of being used by criminal groups to illegally transit trafficked persons to their final destinations in North America, Japan, and Western Europe. In 2006, Vanuatu found an increase in the number of persons using fake passports to enter or transit the country.

Few women hold positions of authority in government or the private sector. Local traditions are frequently sources of discrimination against women, including in the country’s laws and before the courts. Violence against women is common and particularly severe in rural areas. Spousal rape is not a crime, and no law prohibits domestic abuse or sexual harassment. Most cases go unreported because the victims fear reprisal or are discouraged by family pressure, and the police and courts generally hesitate to intervene or impose stronger punishments on offenders. Women’s rights leaders consider village chiefs to be major obstacles to improving conditions for women. The traditional practice of “bride payment,” or dowry, is still common, and critics charge that it encourages the view of women as property. Abortion is permitted only to save the life of a woman or to preserve the woman’s physical and mental health, and it is not available on request, even for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Men and women are supposed to enjoy equal rights, and divorce was approved in 1986, but the government has yet to pass a much-debated family law bill to provide protections to women and children.