Nauru | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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A vote of no confidence on December 18 ousted President Ludwig Scotty only months after his re-election to a second term. Marcus Stephen, a former weightlifting champion, became the new president. The Australian government’s decision to close its detention centers for asylum seekers in Nauru will cause the impoverished island state to lose 100 jobs and 20 percent of its gross domestic product.

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. Japan 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.

Once-plentiful supplies of phosphate, mined by Australia for use as fertilizer, had made Nauru one of the world’s richest countries in per capita income. However, the phosphate is now almost entirely exhausted, mining has made more than 80 percent of the eight-square-mile island uninhabitable, and the government has squandered much of its accumulated wealth through financial mismanagement. Nauru currently carries a large foreign debt, and rising sea levels threaten its survival.

Recent governments have tried different ways to generate income, with limited success. Nauru’s remote location reduces its attraction to travelers. An immigration and passport-sales scheme ended amid corruption scandals. Money laundering tied to Nauru’s offshore banking operations put the country on international blacklists and restricted its access to international loans. With few viable economic alternatives, foreign development assistance has become a major source of government income. Nauru receives aid from the United States for hosting an intelligence listening post. Switching diplomatic recognition between China and Taiwan has also enabled Nauru to extract considerable aid from the two rivals. Since 2001, Nauru has served as a refugee-processing and detention center for Australia in exchange for rent and aid. International groups have claimed that some detainees, including children, remained in the detention center for years while waiting for processing, adjudication, and settlement. As of mid-2007, 7 Burmese who came to Nauru in 2006 and 30 Sri Lankans intercepted by the Australian Navy in 2007 remained in the detention center. The decision by the new Australian Labour government of Kevin Rudd to close these centers will eliminate 100 jobs and millions of dollars from the impoverished island state.

Intense political rivalry and the use of no-confidence votes have toppled several governments in recent years. The 2004 elections produced a clear parliamentary majority for Ludwig Scotty and gave his government a strong mandate for economic reforms. The government also began to trace $1.3 million in missing public funds. In 2005, the government launched a constitutional review to assess whether amendments might improve political stability and government accountability. A series of 40 public meetings were held in 2006, and an Independent Constitutional Review Commission recommended that a 36-member Constitution Convention (Con-Con) debate changes for six weeks and then submit its proposals to the government. Amendments would require passage by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, followed by a referendum. The Con-Con began in April 2007, with 18 delegates chosen by the people and 18 selected by the government. However, the Con-Con has not come to an end as delegates are deeply divided over proposals that include a directly elected president, making the state auditor an independent officer of Parliament, and requiring strict accounting for all public revenue and expenditures.

General elections in August gave Scotty a second term. Scotty attributed his victory to strong public approval of the president’s reform program, which emphasized a 20-year sustainable development strategy and better management of the phosphate trust fund. However, his apparent refusal to investigate allegations of corruption against Finance and Foreign Minister David Adeang led to his ouster by a vote of no confidence in December and his replacement by Marcus Stephen, a former weightlifter, who promised good governance and transparency.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nauru is an electoral democracy. The 2007 elections were deemed free and fair by international observers. The 18-member unicameral legislature is popularly elected from 14 constituencies for three-year terms. The Parliament chooses the president and vice president from among its members. Political parties include the Nauru First Party and the Democratic Party, but many politicians are independents.

There were no reports of serious or widespread corruption in 2007. Nauru was not rated in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government does not restrict or censor the news media. Local journalists produce a number of weekly and monthly publications; foreign dailies, most 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 the government owns and operates, broadcast content from Australia, New Zealand, and other international sources. Internet service began in 1998, but cost and lack of infrastructure limits access.

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.

The government respects freedoms of assembly and association. There are several 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 frequently used, 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.