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Nauru experienced political upheaval in 2011, with shifting alliances among lawmakers and allegations of corruption resulting in the country having three presidents in the course of one week. Former telecommunications minister Sprent Dabwido was elected president in November and held the position through the end of the year.
Nauru, an eight-square-mile island in the South Pacific, 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 and joined the United Nations in 1999.
Nauru’s once-plentiful supply of phosphate, mined by Australia for use as fertilizer, is almost exhausted. Mining has made more than 80 percent of the island uninhabitable, and the government has squandered much of its accumulated wealth through financial mismanagement. The country currently carries a large foreign debt, and rising sea levels threaten its survival.
With few viable methods of generating income, Nauru relies heavily on foreign development assistance. In May 2011, Nauru engaged in talks with aid donors, including the Asian Development Bank, Australia, and New Zealand, about the creation of a new trust fund, with stricter rules on how funds may be accessed, to better secure the long-term needs of its citizens. Nauru has secured considerable aid from China and Taiwan by switching diplomatic recognition between the two rivals.
Between 2001 and 2008, Nauru served as a refugee detention and processing center for Australia in exchange for rent and aid; the center had been criticized for detaining refugees for years while they waited for processing, adjudication, and settlement. Its closure in 2009 cost Nauru approximately one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product. In May 2011, Nauru offered Australia renewed access to the center, though Australia declined, citing Nauru’s failure to sign the United Nations Refugee Convention. In June, Nauru signed the convention in hopes of motivating Australia to reopen the detention camp, though the facility remained closed at year’s end.
Intense political rivalries and the use of no-confidence votes have been a source of political instability. In August 2007, Ludwig Scotty was reelected president; he was replaced by Marcus Stephen just months later, in December, following a no-confidence vote. Stephen secured a second term as president in a snap election in April 2008. After Stephen survived a no-confidence vote in February 2010, parliamentary elections were held twice, in April and June. With supporters and opponents of the government tied both times at nine seats each, resulting in a hung Parliament, Stephen declared a state of emergency on June 11 and dissolved Parliament. On November 1, the state of emergency was lifted after Stephen was reelected and former president Ludwig Scotty was chosen to be speaker of Parliament, giving the government a legislative majority. On November 10, 2011, Stephen resigned as president amid corruption allegations, and Frederick Pitcher was chosen as his successor. However, a no-confidence vote on November 15 ended Pitcher’s presidency, and former telecommunications minister Sprent Dabwido was elected Nauru’s third president in the course of one week.
Nauru is an electoral democracy. The 18-member unicameral Parliament 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, the Democratic Party, and the Center Party, but many politicians are independents.
Corruption is a serious problem in Nauru. In 2011, President Marcus Stephen resigned amid allegations that he had accepted bribes from the Australian phosphate company, Getax, in an attempt to gain exclusive control of the phosphate reserves remaining on the island.
The government does not restrict or censor the news media. There are several local weekly and monthly publications; foreign dailies, mostly in English, are widely available. The government publishes occasional bulletins, and the opposition publishes its own newsletters. Radio Nauru and Nauru TV, which are government owned and operated, broadcast content from Australia, New Zealand, and other international sources. There are no formal restrictions on internet usage.
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, as well as development-focused and religious organizations. There are no trade unions or 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 and there have been few reported cases of abuse. Nauru has no armed forces; Australia provides defense assistance under an informal agreement.
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. In October 2011, Nauru pledged to decriminalize homosexuality following an audit of their human rights by the United Nations; however, no relevant legislation was adopted by year’s end.