Kiribati | Freedom House

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Environment Minister Tetabo Nakara resigned in August 2009 in protest over the government’s slow response to disputes between rival ruling groups on the Island of Maiana which turned violent in July.

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.
Chinese military ambitions in the Pacific and competing offers of development assistance from China and Taiwan have been major issues in Kiribati politics. 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 2007 parliamentary elections, independent candidates 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 presidential elections the same year.
In July 2009, a dispute between the traditional elders’ association (Te Bau Ni Maiana) and the island’s elected council rapidly escalated into open violence. Te Bau Ni Maiana had ordered the abolition of Maiana’s council and demanded new elections. The mayor and several council members rejected their demand and took the case to court, which ruled in the council’s favor, indicating that a democratically elected body cannot be forced to disband. However, members of Te Bau Ni Maiana did not accept the court ruling and burned down the mayor’s house. The mayor and his allies subsequently resigned in August amid increasing intimidation. Environment Minister Tetabo Nakara, who is from the island of Maiana, also resigned in protest over the government’s failure to intervene in the disagreement.
The president has vigorously called for international attention to the growing threats of rising sea levels and dwindling fresh-water supplies facing the people of Kiribati. Tong has warned that relocation of the entire population may be necessary if ongoing climate change makes inundation inevitable. New Zealand has committed to accept some environmental refugees from Kiribati, and some have already relocated there.

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. Interest from a well-managed trust fund built on royalties from phosphate mining has balanced the national budget and kept the country debt free.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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. Forty-four representatives are popularly elected to the unicameral House of Parliament (Maneaba Ni Maungatabu) for 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. The number of businesses owned by mainland Chinese has increased rapidly in recent years, raising concerns over possible corruption in granting immigration status to Chinese investors and other legal wrongdoing in overseeing foreign investments. Kiribati was ranked 111 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is generally respected. However, the government occasionally restricts opposition criticism. Newspapers can be prosecuted for criminal offenses but cannot be deregistered by the government. Kiribati has two weekly newspapers: the state-owned Te Uekara and the privately owned Kiribati Newstar. Churches publish several newsletters and other periodicals. There is also one television and two radio stations, all owned by the state. Internet access is limited outside the capital due to cost and lack of infrastructure.
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, which can be used to discipline boys for criminal activity. Councils on some outer islands are used to adjudicate petty theft and other minor offenses.
Citizens enjoy freedom of movement, though village councils have used exile as a punishment.

Discrimination against women is common in the traditional, male-dominated culture. Sexual harassment is illegal and not reported to be widespread. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women and children are often associated with alcohol abuse.