Freedom in the World
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In January 2008, Samoa’s Chamber of Commerce elected a woman to lead the organization for the first time. Debate over the powers of traditional chiefs continued throughout the year, and the legislature introduced a controversial bill in April that would allow chiefs to register customary lands under their names.
Germany controlled what is now Samoa between 1899 and World War I. New Zealand then administered the islands under a League of Nations mandate; after World War II, a UN mandate. The country became independent in 1962 and changed its name from Western Samoa to Samoa in 1988.
The centrist Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has dominated politics since independence. Tuila’epa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi secured a second term as prime minister in the 2006 general elections, with the HRPP winning 35 of the 49 legislative seats. The main opposition party, the Samoa Democratic United Party (SDUP), took 10 seats, and independents won the remainder. Minor disturbances occurred in some areas where local populations were unhappy with the results, but the elections were considered open and fair.
In May 2007, Samoa’s head of state, Malietoa Tanumafili II, died at age 94, after serving 45 years; he had been appointed for life at independence. The legislature elected in June former prime minister Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi to serve a five-year term as the new head of state.
Debate continued throughout 2008 over the role and powers of village chiefs. Matai, or chiefs of extended families, control local government and churches through the village fono, or legislature, which is open only to them. Many provide leadership and help their communities to solve conflicts, but abuse of power and excessive punishment also occur. For example, in August 2008 a woman accused of adultery was banished from her village along with her five children. In April 2008, the legislature introduced the Land Titles Registration bill that would allow matai to register customary land under their names.Critics argued, however, that this could spark violence and conflict.
In January 2008, Samoa’s Chamber of Commerce elected a woman to lead the organization for the first time. In June 2008, female parliamentarians formed a Commonwealth Women’s Parliamentarian Association to support greater participation of women in Somoan politics.
Samoa is an electoral democracy. The 2006 legislative elections were deemed free and fair. Before universal suffrage was implemented in 1990, only the matai could vote. Executive authority is vested in the head of state, who is elected for five-year terms by the Legislative Assembly. The head of state appoints the prime minister, who leads the government and names his own cabinet. All laws passed by the 49-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly must receive approval from the head of state to take effect. Although candidates are free to propose themselves for electoral office, the approval of the matai is essential. Two legislative seats are reserved for at-large voters, mostly citizens of mixed or non-Samoan heritage who have no ties to the 47 village-based constituencies. All lawmakers serve five-year terms. The main political parties are the HRPP and the SDUP.
Official corruption and abuses do not appear as widespread or serious as in some other states in the region. Nevertheless, there have been allegations of corruption over the years. Samoa was ranked 62 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and the press are generally respected. The state operates the Samoa Broadcasting Corporation. In December 2008, the government issued a third commercial television license. There are three English-language and several Samoan newspapers. Journalists are legally required to reveal their sources in defamation suits against them, but this law has not been tested in court. In 2004, publishers, journalists, and civil society groups called on the government to abolish the Printers and Publishers Act of 1982 and the Law of Criminal Libel, claiming that the statutes made it easier for government officials to sue them; these laws remained in place at year’s end. There are several internet service providers, and internet use is growing rapidly. The population has open and free access to the Internet. In October 2008, the Supreme Court barred journalists from reporting on the work of the Samoa Commission of Inquiry investigating gun smuggling involving the police commissioner; the restrictions were imposed on the grounds that the commission’s work should proceed without sensationalism or political partisanship.
The government respects freedom of religion in practice, and relations among religious groups are generally amicable. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1990 Village Fono Act, which gives legal recognition to village fono decisions, could not be used to infringe on villagers’ freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and association. Similar Supreme Court rulings followed in 2003 and 2004. There have been no reports of restrictions on academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected in practice, and human rights groups operate freely. More than 60 percent of adults work in subsistence agriculture, and about 20 percent of wage earners belong to trade unions. Workers have the legal right to bargain collectively, and government workers can strike. The country depends heavily on remittances from more than 100,000 Samoans working overseas.
The judiciary is independent and upholds the right to a fair trial. The Supreme Court is the highest court, with full jurisdiction over civil, criminal, and constitutional matters. The head of state, on the recommendation of the prime minister, appoints the chief justice. Prisons meet basic international standards.
Samoa has no military, and the small police force has little impact in the villages, where the fono settles most disputes. The councils vary considerably in their decision-making styles and in the number of matai involved. Abuses by some fono officials have spurred public debate on the legitimacy of their actions. Light offenses are usually punished with fines in cash or kind; serious offenses result in banishment from the village.
Freedom of movement is generally respected. A new permanent-resident permit was introduced in 2004. The cabinet is required to determine annually the eligibility and residency requirements for permanent-resident permits.
Domestic violence against women and children is common. Spousal rape is not illegal, and social pressure and fear of reprisal inhibit reporting of domestic abuse. Sexual abuse of young girls and illegal drug use are both increasing. Nevertheless, in April 2008, the first-ever use in Samoa of DNA evidence led to the conviction of a rapist, and in September of that year, a high-ranking matai was convicted of unlawful sexual relations with a 14-year-old boy and sentenced to 30 months in prison.