Freedom in the World
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Former president Tommy Remengesau, Jr., was reelected in November 2012, defeating incumbent Johnson Toribiong. In October, Palau concluded its first-ever trial by jury. Meanwhile, Typhoon Bopha caused millions of dollars of damage in the country in December.
The United States administered Palau, which consists of eight main islands and more than 250 smaller islands, as a UN Trust Territory from 1947 until 1981, when it became self-governing. Palau gained full independence in 1994 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States; the compact granted Palau $442 million in U.S. economic aid between 1994 and 2009 and allowed Palauan citizens to reside, work, study, and access federal government programs in the United States in exchange for U.S. military access to the archipelago until 2044. A financial agreement signed in September 2010 under the compact promises more than $250 million in total assistance through 2024. However, the U.S. Congress had yet to ratify the agreement by the end of 2012.
Johnson Toribiong was elected president in November 2008. Parliamentary elections were held the same month with all candidates running as independents.
Development assistance from Taiwan and other donors, remittances from citizens overseas, and tourism are major sources of revenue. Some legislators have advocated closer ties with China in order to attract Chinese tourists and investments. The 2011 Petroleum Act seeks to expand revenue sources by allowing exploration, extraction, and development and production of oil and gas resources in Palau’s 200–nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
A power plant fire in November 2011 led to a two-week state of emergency and electricity rationing, affecting hospitals, the sewage system, schools, and public services. In December, Typhoon Bopha destroyed homes and disrupted water, electricity, and telecommunications systems; recovery efforts are expected to cost as much as $20 million. To reduce Palau’s dependence on fossil fuel-generated electricity, the legislature in January 2012 approved the greater use of renewable energy. However, Palau lacks funding for equipment, and its remoteness means that the shipping of construction equipment can take weeks or months.
More than 12,000 voters registered for the September 26, 2012 primary election. The top two winners among three presidential candidates and four vice-presidential candidates competed in the general elections on November 6. Tommy Remengesau, Jr., who was president from 2001 to 2009, was declared the winner with 58 percent of the vote, defeating Toribiong. Antonio Bells defeated incumbent Kerai Mariur to secure the vice presidency with 52 percent of the vote. In concurrent parliamentary elections, all candidates ran as independents.
Palau is an electoral democracy. The bicameral legislature, the Olbiil Era Kelulau, consists of the 9-member Senate and the 16-member House of Delegates. Legislators are elected to four-year terms by popular vote, as are the president and vice president. The president may serve only two consecutive terms. Palau is organized into 16 states, each of which is headed by a governor and has a seat in the House of Delegates. Every state is also allowed its own constitutional convention and to elect a legislature and head of state.
There are no political parties, though no laws prevent their formation. The current system of loose political alliances that can quickly form and dismantle has had a destabilizing effect on governance.
Government corruption and abuse are problems, with several high-ranking public officials having faced charges in recent years. Although anti-money laundering measures were introduced in 2007, significant deficiencies in due diligence, record keeping, and monitoring have been found, and the attorney general’s office generally lacks the resources to oversee implementation of these measures.
Freedoms of speech and the press are respected. There are several print publications, five privately-owned radio stations, and one privately-owned television station. Cable television rebroadcasts U.S. and other foreign programs. The government does not impede internet access, but high costs and a lack of connectivity outside the main islands limit diffusion. Palau is seeking assistance from multilateral development banks to finance an underwater cable that would expand internet access.
Citizens of Palau enjoy freedom of religion. Although religious organizations are required to register with the government, applications have never been denied. There have been no reports of restrictions on academic freedom, and the government provides well-funded basic education for all. A December 2012 law requires Palauan language instruction in all primary and secondary schools chartered in Palau or receiving public funds.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Many nongovernmental groups represent youth, health, and women’s issues. Workers can freely organize unions and bargain collectively, though the economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture and is heavily dependent on U.S. aid, as well as rent payments and remittances from Palauans working overseas.
The judiciary is independent, and trials are generally fair. In October 2012, Palau concluded its first-ever jury trial; previously, all trials were decided by a judge. A 300-member police and first-response force maintains internal order. Palau has no military. There have been no reports of prisoner abuse, though overcrowding is a problem in the country’s only prison.
Foreign workers account for about one-third of the population and 75 percent of the workforce. There have been reports of discrimination against and abuse of foreign workers, who cannot legally change employers once they arrive in Palau. In response to social tensions and a slower economy, the government in 2009 decided to limit the total number of foreign workers in the country at any time to 6,000. Women are highly regarded in this matrilineal society; land rights and familial descent are traced through women. Women are active in the economy and politics. The number of domestic violence and child abuse cases is small. Sexual harassment and rape, including spousal rape, are illegal. The U.S. State Department’s 2012 Human Trafficking Report cites Palau as a destination country for forced prostitution (women) and labor (men and women). In 2012, police investigated several cases of forced labor and offered assistance and housing to victims, but law enforcement in general lacks training and resources to fight human trafficking. In October 2011, Palau pledged to end discrimination against gay men and lesbians following a UN audit of human rights in the island state, but no concrete changes had been implemented as of the end of 2012.