Vanuatu | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2010

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In 2009, bitter political rivalries resulted in failed opposition-led votes of no confidence against Prime Minister Edward Natapei, who was also briefly stripped of his seat in parliament and position as prime minister in November. In September, Iolu Abil was chosen as Vanuatu’s new president. Meanwhile, Viran Molisa Trief was appointed the country’s first female solicitor general in March.

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 become dysfunctional. No-confidence votes have forced several changes of government in recent years, and parliamentary coalitions have been frequently formed and dissolved.
In March 2007, the government declared a two-week state of emergency in the capital following deadly clashes between people from Tanna and Ambrym islands. The violence, sparked by allegations of black magic, killed 3 people, injured 20, and led to 200 arrests.
In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the Vanua’aku Party (VP)won 11 seats, the National United Party (NUP) took 8, and the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) and the Vanuatu Republican Party (VRP) each captured 7. In September, parliament elected the VP’s Edward Natapei—former prime minister from 2001 to 2004—to succeed Ham Lini as the new prime minister. International observers deemed the elections largely credible despite reports of bribery and fraud.Fractious politics in 2008 led to three failed no-confidence motions against Natapei before the year’s end.
Natapei survived a no-confidence vote in June 2009 and forestalled another in mid-November when he replaced half of his cabinet with members of the opposition alliance. However, his failure to submit a written explanation for missing three consecutive sittings of the parliament resulted in Natapei being stripped of his seat in parliament and his position as prime minister at the end of November. The Chief Justice reinstated Natapei in December after ruling that the decision to remove him had been unconstitutional, and Natapei survived yet another no-confidence vote on December 10. In September, the electoral college chose Iolu Abil to replace Kalkot Mataskelekele as the country’s president.
Vanuatu secured $66 million in development assistance over five years from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account in 2006, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2008 that Vanuatu was making progress in creating jobs and increasing per capita income. However, unemployment rates are high, and crime has worsened, particularly in the capital. Real progress on economic reform and strengthening the rule of law remains difficult, as politics is dominated by ethnic, tribal, and personal rivalries.
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 the parliament and the heads of the six provincial governments form an electoral college to select the largely ceremonial president for a five-year term. The National Council of Chiefs works in parallel with the parliament, exercising authority mainly over language and cultural matters.
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 VP, NUP, and the francophone UMP.
Corruption remains a serious problem. National leaders have been forced from office in recent years amid corruption scandals. Elected officials have also been accused of threatening journalists for critical reporting. In March 2009, a member of parliament was charged with unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and indecent assault, though the charges were dropped when the victim refused to testify. Another lawmaker was charged in March with harboring a prisoner and obstructing officers on duty. Vanuatu was ranked 95 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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 state-owned Vanuatu Weekly and several privately owned daily and weekly papers supply international, national, and local news. In 2008, the government ended its monopoly over telecommunications services. The number of internet users is increasing, though access is largely limited to the capital due to cost and lack of infrastructure.
The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country. Members of the clergy have held senior government positions, including the posts of 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.Public demonstrations are permitted by law and generally allowed in practice. Civil society groups are active on a variety of issues. Five independent trade unions are organized under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions. Workers can bargain collectively and strike.
The judiciary is largely independent, but it is weak and inefficient. Lack of resources hinders the 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. Despite reported improvements in 2009, prisons fail to meet minimum international standards. Ill treatment of prisoners and police brutality allegedly provoke outbreaks. In March 2009, a detainee was allegedly beaten to death while in police custody. Approximately 70 inmates escaped from the main prison in Port Vila in December 2008 and another 5 escaped from the same facility in January 2009.

Local traditions are frequently sources of discrimination against women. There are only two women in parliament. In March 2009, the government appointed Viran Molisa Trief as the first female solicitor general. Spousal rape is not a crime, and no law prohibits domestic abuse or sexual harassment, which women’s groups claim are common and increasing. Most cases go unreported due to victims’ fear of reprisal or family pressure, and the police and courts rarely intervene or impose strong punishments on offenders. The traditional practice of “bride payment,” or dowry, remains common. Vanuatu is a transit point for victims trafficked for prostitution and labor.