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Tuvalu’s Parliament passed legislation allowing the incorporation of nongovernmental organizations in July 2007. The law was expected to strengthen legal protections for civil society groups.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands, situated in the central South Pacific Ocean, became a British protectorate in 1892 and a British colony in 1916. Polynesian Ellice Islanders voted to separate themselves from the Micronesian Gilbertese in 1974. In 1978, the Ellice Islands became independent under the name of Tuvalu, while the Gilbert Islands went on to become part of Kiribati.
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.
Disappointment with incumbent lawmakers prompted a large voter turnout—some 6,000 out of a population of 10,000—in the 2006 general elections, and newcomers took 7 of the 15 Parliament seats. Apisai Ielemia, a former civil servant, was chosen as prime minister.
In July 2007, Parliament passed a bill to allow the incorporation of nongovernmental organizations.
Tuvalu is an electoral democracy. The head of state, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, is represented by a governor-general who must be a citizen of Tuvalu. 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 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. The semipublic Tuvalu Media Corporation (TMC) operates the country’s sole radio station as well as a television station. Human rights groups have criticized the TMC for limited coverage of politics and human rights issues, but there are no allegations of censorship or imbalances in reporting. The radio station, Radio Tuvalu, broadcasts a range of domestic and international programs, but financial constraints at the television station limit broadcast time and content variety. Many residents use satellite dishes to access foreign programming. There is one fortnightly newspaper, Tuvalu Echoes, which is also run by TMC. The government news sheet, Sikuelo o Tuvalu, is published in Tuvaluan. Internet access is largely limited to the capital because of cost and connectivity challenges. Telecommunication links can be tenuous; for example, equipment failure disrupted all telecommunication services for two weeks in December 2005, though service resumed after replacement parts were brought in from Fiji.
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 freedoms of association and assembly, and the government generally upholds these rights. Public demonstrations are permitted, and nongovernmental groups provide a variety of health, education, and other services for women, youth, and the population at large. In July 2007, Parliament approved a bill allowing the incorporation of nongovernmental organizations. The measure was expected to strengthen legal protection for civil society groups. Workers can freely organize unions and choose their own representatives for collective bargaining. They also have the right to strike, but no strikes have occurred in Tuvalu’s history. Public-sector employees, numbering 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 the sale of coins and stamps, sale of tuna-fishing licenses to foreign fleets, and leasing 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 role 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, but they remain underrepresented in positions of leadership in business and government.