Vanuatu | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



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Civil Liberties
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Allegations of black magic in a squatter area outside the capital fueled tribal clashes in 2007, prompting the government to impose a two-week state of emergency. Also during the year, the electoral office increased the number of Parliament seats for the island of Efate, where the capital is located, from four to six. However, the seats for urban Port Vila itself fell from six to four.

The archipelago now known as Vanuatu was governed as an Anglo-French “condominium” from 1906 until independence in 1980. The Anglo-French legacy continues to split society along linguistic lines in all spheres of life, including politics, religion, and economics.

Widespread corruption and persistent political fragmentation have caused many governments to collapse or grow dysfunctional. To restore public trust and government stability, Prime Minister Serge Vohor in 2004 proposed constitutional amendments that would 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. Parliament approved these proposals for a constitutional referendum in 2005, but the vote has yet to be held. Ham Lini succeeded Vohor as prime minister after a no-confidence vote in December 2004, pledging to enact economic reforms and strengthen the rule of law.

Vanuatu secured $66 million in development assistance over five years from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account in 2006, but real progress on economic reform and strengthening the rule of law remained difficult in a political environment dominated by ethnic, tribal, and personal rivalries.

In February 2007, the electoral office increased the size of the multiseat parliamentary constituency for the island of Efate, where the capital is located, from four to six seats. However, the separate constituency for urban Port Vila itself was reduced from six seats to four.

The government declared a two-week state of emergency in the capital on March 3, following deadly clashes between people from Tanna and Ambrym islands in the Blacksands squatter area, which was home to thousands of migrants from the outer islands. Public meetings were prohibited during the emergency, and some restrictions on freedom of movement were imposed. The violence, sparked by allegations of black magic, killed two people and led to 200 arrests.

In September, the government raised wages for public servants by 25 percent. The Asian Development Bank warned that the move could undermine current economic growth.

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 to select the largely ceremonial president for a five-year term. The National Council of Chiefs works in parallel with Parliament, exercising 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 are widespread in elections.

Many political parties are active, but individual rivalries are intense and politicians frequently switch affiliations. Politics is also driven by linguistic and tribal identity. The leading parties are the Vanua’aku Party, the National United Party, and the francophone Union of Moderate Parties.

Corruption is a serious problem. Corruption allegations forced Prime Minister Barak Sope to resign in 2001, and President Alfred Maseng Nalo resigned in 2004 after his corruption conviction was revealed. In 2007, a former minister was arrested for fraud, and the land minister was investigated for allegedly improper transfers of public lands. Vanuatu was ranked 98 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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 (a pidgin), English, or French. The number of internet users is increasing, but diffusion is limited by cost and access challenges 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.

The law provides for freedoms of association and assembly, and the government typically upholds these rights. Civil society groups are active on a variety of issues. There are five independent trade unions organized under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions. Workers can organize unions, bargain collectively, and strike. Public demonstrations are permitted by law and generally allowed in practice.

The judiciary is largely independent, but it is weak and inefficient. Lack of resources hinders hiring and retention of qualified judges and prosecutors. Long pretrial detentions are common. Tribal chiefs often adjudicate local disputes, but their punishments are sometimes deemed excessive. Vanuatu has no military. The Vanuatu Mobile Force is a paramilitary wing of the small police force. Both are under the command of a civilian police commissioner. Reports of police abuse are infrequent and minor. Prison conditions are poor.

Vanuatu is suspected of being used as a transit point for trafficked persons heading to North America, Japan, and Western Europe.

Local traditions are frequently sources of discrimination against women. 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. The traditional practice of “bride payment,” or dowry, remains common. Critics say it encourages the view that women are property. Abortion is permitted only to save a woman’s life or preserve her mental health; it is not available on request, even for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.