Freedom in the World
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President Anote Tong in 2008 continued his efforts to raise awareness of the threats posed to Kiribati by rising sea levels and dwindling supplies of fresh water. The government sought assistance on those issues from Australia, New Zealand, and the broader international community, raising the prospect that Kiribati’s population would eventually need to be resettled elsewhere.
Kiribati gained independence from Britain in 1979. The country consists of 33 atolls scattered across nearly 1.5 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean, as well as Banaba Island in the western Pacific. Twenty of the atolls are inhabited, and most face possible inundation as sea levels rise.
Chinese military ambitions in the Pacific and competing offers of development assistance from China and Taiwan have been major issues in Kiribati politics in recent years. President Teburoro Tito’s refusal to release details about a land lease to China for a satellite-tracking facility led to his removal through a no-confidence vote in 2003. Anote Tong, the opposition leader, was elected to replace him. Tong immediately terminated the 15-year lease and restored ties with Taiwan in 2004.
In the August 2007 parliamentary elections, which were considered free and fair, independents took 19 seats, followed by Tong’s Pillars of Truth (Boutokaan Te Koaua, or BTK) party with 18 seats, and former president Tito’s Protect the Maneaba (Maneaban Te Mauri, or MTM) party with 7 seats. Tong secured a second four-year term in the October 2007 presidential election.
In 2008, Tong continued his efforts to raise international awareness of the threats Kiribati faced from rising sea levels and dwindling supplies of fresh water. During a foreign trip in June, he warned that Kiribati’s population might need to be relocated to New Zealand, Australia, or other countries if ongoing climate change made inundation inevitable.
The government is the main employer, and many residents practice subsistence agriculture. The economy depends considerably on foreign assistance and worker remittances, and the state generates a small sum from selling licenses to foreign fishing fleets. The main exports are dried coconut meat and fish. Interest from a well-managed trust fund built on royalties from phosphate mining has balanced the national budget and kept the country debt free.
Kiribati is an electoral democracy. The president is popularly elected in a two-step process, with Parliament nominating candidates from its own ranks and voters then choosing one to be president. In 2007, the number of popularly elected representatives in the unicameral House of Parliament (Maneaba Ni Maungatabu) increased from 40 to 44, all serving four-year terms.One additional member is nominated by the Rabi Island Council, and the attorney general holds a seat ex officio. (Although Rabi Island is a part of Fiji, many residents were originally from Kiribati’s Banaba Island. British authorities forced them to move to Rabi when phosphate mining made Banaba uninhabitable.) The president, vested with executive authority by the constitution, is limited to serving three four-year terms.
The major parties are the BTK and MTM. Political parties are loosely organized and generally lack fixed ideologies or formal platforms. Geographical, tribal, and personal loyalties are more important determinants of political affiliation.
Official corruption and abuse are serious problems, and the government has not shown a commitment to address them. Kiribati was ranked 96 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is generally respected, but the government has a record of restricting opposition criticism. In 2002, the Newspaper Registration Act was amended to give the government the authority to shut down newspapers. The changes were passed after embarrassing accounts of government abuses were published in a monthly BTK political pamphlet owned by Ieremia Tabai, a former president. Tabai is also publisher of the weekly Kiribati Newstar and owner of the radio station Newair FM 101, to which the government had denied a broadcast license until 2002. In 2004, the new government repealed the 2002 changes to the Newspaper Registration Act so that newspapers can only be prosecuted for criminal offenses but cannot be deregistered. The state owns Te Uekera,the other of Kiribati’s two newspapers, and a radio station. Churches publish several newsletters and other periodicals. Internet access is limited outside the capital due to cost and the lack of infrastructure. In December 2008, the government announced that it will issue a license to Digicel to deploy and operate a national mobile network.
There have been no reports of religious oppression or restrictions on academic freedom. The expansion of access to and quality of education at all levels, however, is seriously restricted by a lack of resources. Secondary education is not available on all islands, and there is a shortage of qualified teachers.
Freedoms of assembly and association and the right to organize unions and bargain collectively are generally respected. A number of nongovernmental groups are involved in development assistance, education, health, and advocacy for women and children. Only about 10 percent of the workforce belongs to unions, the largest of which is the Kiribati Trade Union Congress, with about 2,500 members. The law provides for the right to strike, though the most recent strike was in 1980.
The judicial system is modeled on English common law and provides adequate due process rights. It consists of the high court, a court of appeal, and magistrates’ courts; final appeals can go to the Privy Council in London. The president makes all judicial appointments. A 260-person police force performs law enforcement and paramilitary functions. Kiribati has no military; defense assistance is provided by Australia and New Zealand under bilateral agreements. Traditional customs permit corporal punishment, and island councils on some outer islands occasionally order such penalties for petty theft and other minor offenses.
Citizens enjoy freedom of movement, though village councils have used exile as a punishment.
Economic opportunities for women are limited. Discrimination against women is common in the traditional, male-dominated culture. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women and children are often associated with alcohol abuse. Prostitution and sexual harassment are illegal; neither is reported to be widespread. The number of reported HIV/AIDS cases grew from 46 at the end of 2004 to 61 at the end of 2006.