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In September 2012, Nauru reopened a refugee detention and processing center for Australia, where harsh living conditions and delays in the processing of refugee claims led to protests and hunger strikes by asylum seekers. Also during the year, President Sprent Dabwido failed to secure passage of constitutional reforms to break political gridlock and increase stability.
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 climate change and rising sea levels threaten its survival.
With few viable methods of generating income, Nauru relies heavily on foreign development assistance. In 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, in exchange for rent and aid, Nauru hosted a refugee detention and processing center for Australia. The center was criticized for holding refugees for years while they awaited processing; it closed in 2009, which cost Nauru approximately one-fifth of its gross domestic product. In May 2011, Nauru offered Australia renewed access to the center. Australia initially declined, citing Nauru’s failure to sign the United Nations Refugee Convention. However, Nauru signed the convention in June, and the center officially reopened in September 2012. Australia promised Nauru millions of dollars to renovate the center, in addition to rent payments and other assistance. By October, nearly 400 asylum seekers were transferred from an Australian holding center on Christmas Island to the facility in Nauru, where poor living conditions sparked protests and even suicide attempts by asylum seekers. Some 300 detainees went on hunger strike in November over long delays in the processing of their refugee claims. In December, one hunger striker was evacuated to Australia for medical treatment and was subsequently returned to Nauru.
Intense political rivalries and the use of no-confidence votes have been a source of political instability. Several changes of government occurred between 2007 and 2011, with none lasting longer than a year, and the shortest lasting only days. President Sprent Dabwido, elected in November 2011, made constitutional reforms to increase political stability a priority. In January 2012, he pushed for reforms that included increasing the number of seats in Parliament to 19 to prevent legislative stalemates, selecting the speaker from outside of Parliament, adopting a code of conduct for lawmakers, establishing an Ombudsman Commission, and strengthening the Audit Department. After Parliament rejected the bill three times, Dabwido replaced his entire cabinet in June with the hope of building support for his reforms.
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 an Australian phosphate company.
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 owned and operated by the government, 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. 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 women’s ability to exercise their legal rights. No women currently serve in Parliament. Sexual harassment is a crime, but spousal rape is not. Domestic violence is frequently associated with alcohol abuse. In late 2011, Nauru pledged to decriminalize homosexuality—male homosexuality is punishable with 14 years of prison at hard labor—after a United Nations human rights audit, although there had been no legislative action on the issue by the end of 2012.