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In several incidents reminiscent of the previous year, the Maltese government in 2007 refused to rescue migrants stranded between Maltese and Libyan waters, leaving dozens clinging to fishing nets for days. A new right-wing political party with an anti-immigration platform emerged in June. Separately, journalists were harassed and injured during a protest by hunters in March.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Malta joined the Commonwealth and became a republic in 1974. Power has alternated between the pro-Western Nationalist Party (PN) and the nonaligned, leftist Labor Party (MLP). In 1990, the PN government submitted Malta’s 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-EU path that culminated in a successful March 2003 referendum on accession. The country formally joined the EU in May 2004.
National elections in 2003 returned the incumbent PN to power with around 52 percent of the vote and 35 seats in the unicameral House of Representatives. The MLP placed second with about 48 percent of the vote and 30 seats. In March 2004, the House of Representatives elected Edward Fenech Adami, the outgoing prime minister and veteran PN leader, as president of the republic. Lawrence Gonzi, the deputy prime minister, took over the premiership.
In June 2007, the National Action party was formed as a right-wing alternative to the main two parties. It aimed to put pressure on other EU countries to absorb illegal immigrants so as to ease the burden on Malta, and called for a rule under which Malta would only hold detained immigrants for one month, allowing them to move on toward Europe on release. The party also sought to reform the electoral process and role of the president.
Malta had refused to rescue immigrants stranded in waters between Libya and Malta in 2006, and repeated its resistance in May and June 2007, leaving groups of migrants clutching for days to fishing boats in the Mediterranean. Malta claimed that the responsibility lay with Libya, and in one incident with Spain, since it was a Spanish boat that spotted the migrants in question. Malta has urged the EU to draft guidelines for handling such cases.
Malta is an electoral democracy. Members of the 65-seat unicameral legislature, the House of Representatives, are elected through proportional representation with a single-transferable-vote (STV) arrangement, allowing voters to rank-order competing candidates by preference. The 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 national politics. The smaller Democratic Alternative party also competes, but is not currently represented in the parliament.
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 2007. Malta was ranked 33 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, though incitement to racial hatred is punishable by a jail term of six to eight months. 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. The government does not block internet access. In March 2007, hunters protesting EU restrictions attacked reporters attempting to cover the demonstration, damaging equipment and injuring several journalists.
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, small communities of Muslims, Jews, and Protestants are tolerated and respected. There is one Muslim private school. Academic freedom is respected, and there is generally free and open discussion in the country.
The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights. Nongovernmental organizations investigating human rights issues are able to operate without state 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, contravening the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87. The clause is reportedly 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, provided a number of reform measures, including the establishment of a witness protection program and a mechanism for handling complaints directed toward the police. Prison conditions generally meet international standards, although the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights has objected to detention conditions for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. An independent report on the military’s violent January 2005 suppression of a protest by detained immigrants raised concerns about the use of excessive force, recommending an internal military inquiry and better training for soldiers.
According to the 2007 Migrant Integration Policy Index, migrants in Malta are explicitly discriminated against, and the government provides very little protection for those who file complaints. An Equality Agency is being established to offer legal advice to migrants.
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 policy. Women occupy only 6 of the 65 seats in the 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 senior 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 2007 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.