Kiribati | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2011

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A report released in February 2010 by an independent commission from New Zealand found that the Kiribati government did not have sufficient resources to adequately respond to a July 2009 ferry accident that killed 35 people. In November, President Anote Tong hosted an international conference on the rising sea levels that continue to threaten Kiribati’s existence.

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 15-year land lease to China for a satellite-tracking facility led to the collapse of his government in 2003. Opposition leader Anote Tong was elected in 2004 to replace Tito, and he immediately terminated the Chinese lease and restored ties with Taiwan.

In the August 2007 parliamentary elections, independents took 19 seats, followed by Tong’s Pillars of Truth party with 18 seats and Tito’s Protect the Maneaba party with 7 seats. Tong secured a second four-year term in the October 2007 presidential election.

Tong has vigorously called for international attention to the growing threats his country faces from rising sea levels and dwindling fresh-water supplies. He has warned that relocation of the entire population may be necessary if ongoing climate change makes inundation inevitable. New Zealand has pledged to accept environmental refugees from Kiribati, and some have already moved there. In November 2010, Tong’s government hosted the Tarawa Climate Change Conference, which brought together nations threatened by rising sea levels and major economic powers—including China—to jointly call for immediate action at the United Nations.

The government is the main employer, and many residents practice subsistence agriculture. The economy depends considerably on foreign assistance and overseas worker remittances, and the state generates a small sum from selling licenses to foreign fishing fleets. Interest from a trust fund built on royalties from phosphate mining has balanced the national budget and kept the country debt free. Nevertheless, an Asian Development Bank report released in December 2010 warned that Kiribati was facing serious pressure on its national budget due to poor trust-fund performance in recent years and a reduction in remittances due to economic troubles abroad.

Government performance fell under scrutiny in February 2010, when New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission released a report into a July 2009 ferry accident off Maiana Island that killed 35 people. The investigation found that the Kiribati government had no search-and-rescue plan in place and lacked sufficient resources to adequately respond to the accident.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Kiribati is an electoral democracy. The president is popularly elected in a two-step process whereby Parliament nominates candidates from its own ranks and voters then choose one to be president. Forty-four representatives are popularly elected to the unicameral House of Parliament 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 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 three four-year terms.
Political parties are loosely organized and generally lack fixed ideologies or formal platforms. Geography, tribal ties, and personal loyalties tend to determine political affiliations.
Official corruption and abuse are serious problems, and the government has not shown a commitment to addressing them. The number of businesses owned by mainland Chinese has rapidly increased 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 91 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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 are also two radio stations and one television channel, all owned by the state. Internet access is limited outside the capital due to costs—the highest in the Pacific—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 are generally respected. A number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are involved in development assistance, education, health, and advocacy for women and children. Workers have the right to organize unions and bargain collectively, though only about 10 percent of the workforce is unionized. The largest union, the Kiribati Trade Union Congress, has approximately 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 go to the Privy Council in London. The president makes all judicial appointments. Traditional customs permit corporal punishment, which can be usedto discipline boys for criminal activity. Councils on some outer islands are used to adjudicate petty theft and other minor offenses.
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.
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.