Freedom in the World
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After calling a snap election in April 2008 to end a two-month deadlock in Parliament, President Marcus Stephen secured a new majority and a new term in office. An Australian detention center in Nauru for asylum seekers closed in March, eliminating as many as 100 jobs and associated rent that constituted approximately one-fifth of the small country’s 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 methods to generate income, with limited success. Nauru’s remote location reduces its attraction to travelers, and an immigration and passport-sales scheme ended amid corruption scandals. 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.
In 2001, Nauru began to serve 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. In February 2008, the new Australian Labour government of Kevin Rudd decided to close the center and entered into negotiations with Nauru. When the center in Nauru closed a month later, up to 100 jobs and associated rent that constituted approximately one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product were lost.
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 process had not been completed by the end of 2008, as delegates remained deeply divided over proposals including 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 2007 gave Scotty a second term as president. Scotty attributed his victory to strong public approval of his 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.
However, Stephen and his supporters were soon challenged by the opposition. Adeang, who was appointed speaker of Parliament in March 2008, led a failed no-confidence vote the same month to remove Stephen. He also tried to pass a ruling outlawing dual citizenship for members of Parliament, which would have forced the removal of two senior cabinet members and given the opposition a majority of seats in Parliament. Although the supreme court found against the ruling in April, political deadlock and unrest persisted, prompting Stephen to declare a state of emergency and call a snap election on April 26. Stephen won a second term in office, and his supporters won 12 of 18 seats in Parliament, ending the crisis.
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. 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 2008. Nauru was not rated in Transparency International’s 2008 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 and there are no formal restrictions on usage; however, cost and lack of infrastructure limit 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 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 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, typically 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. There are currently no women serving in parliament.