Freedom in the World
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The Vanuak’aku Party captured the most seats in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, followed by the People’s Progress Party. Sato Kilman was reelected prime minister. Earlier in the year, a three-month suspension of the police commissioner led to confusion over who rightfully held the position. Vanuatu joined the World Trade Organization in July.
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 governments to collapse or become dysfunctional. No-confidence votes have forced several changes of government in recent years, and parliamentary coalitions are frequently formed and dissolved. In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the Vanua’aku Party (VP) captured the most seats, while three other parties took the remaining seats. The role of prime minister changed hands several times in the first half 2011, with Sato Kilman of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) finally winning a June election to settle the dispute.
In June 2012, the Police Service Commission imposed a three-month paid suspension on police commissioner Joshua Bong to investigate allegations of incompetence. When the acting police chief Arthur Caulton refused to step down after Bong’s suspension had ended, Bong ordered the arrest of Caulton and other officials, accusing them of mutiny. On September 30, the Police Service Commission appointed Bong to a five-year term as commissioner to reaffirm his position. Days later, however, President Iolu Johnson Abbil fired Bong and reappointed Caulton as the acting police commissioner. In December, Bong and several police officers were charged with mutiny, kidnapping, and false imprisonment, while Caulton was appointed the new police commissioner. The dispute stirred public concern about potential violence between competing parties and its effect on public order and safety.
In parliamentary elections held on October 30, 2012, the VP won 8 seats, the PPP took 6 seats, the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) captured 5 seats, and the National United Party (NUP) took only 4 seats. The remainder of the 52 seats at stake went to 12 other parties and several independent candidates. Kilman retained the premiership.
The economy has suffered substantially from the global economic downtown. Like many other Pacific island states, Vanuatu has sought closer ties with China for investment and economic assistance. However, the rapid expansion of this Chinese presence has increased social tensions, especially with indigenous business owners. Vanuatu formally joined the World Trade Organization in July 2012, despite considerable opposition from churches and civil society groups. Australia’s Seasonal Worker Scheme was launched in Vanuatu in October to provide new employment opportunities.
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 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 Parliament, exercising authority mainly over language and cultural matters.
Many political parties are active, but politicians frequently switch affiliations. Politics is also driven by linguistic and tribal identity.
Corruption is a serious problem, and official abuse is serious and widespread. In March 2012, six provincial councils were suspended for irregularities in their financial operations. Seven senior officials at the National Provident Fund were suspended in August amid allegations of mismanagement and nepotism. The practice of politicians granting passports to foreign nationals in exchange for personal gain has long been a concern of local critics and international aid donors. In May, police arrested the chairman of the Citizenship Commission and several other officials for allegedly issuing illegal citizenship permits to Chinese migrants.
The government generally respects freedoms of speech and the press, though elected officials have been accused of threatening journalists for critical reporting. The state-owned Television Blong Vanuatu broadcasts in English and French. Newspapers include the state-owned Vanuatu Weekly and several privately owned daily and weekly papers. State monopoly of telecommunications services ended in 2008. Buzz FM, the first radio station not owned by the government or a politician, began broadcasting in the capital in October 2012. The number of internet users is growing, but access is limited by cost and lack of infrastructure.
The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom in 2012.
The law provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government typically upholds these rights. Public demonstrations are permitted by law and generally allowed in practice, though 24 people who were peacefully protesting the arrival of an Indonesian military aircraft were arrested in May 2012. Civil society groups are active on a variety of issues.
Workers can bargain collectively and strike. Five independent trade unions are organized under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions. In April 2012, public transportation workers went on strike to protest the poor condition of roads in Port Vila and Efate; the strike ended the next day when the government agreed to take action. In July, the government suspended a teacher for organizing a supposedly illegal assembly among teachers to discuss salary issues.
The judiciary is largely independent, but a lack of resources hinders the hiring and retention of qualified judges and prosecutors. Tribal chiefs often adjudicate local disputes, but their punishments are sometimes deemed excessive. Long pretrial detentions are common, and prisons fail to meet minimum international standards. Harsh treatment of prisoners and police brutality provoke frequent prison riots and breakouts. In July 2012, the Supreme Court ordered police to bring to justice those responsible for beating to death detainee John Bule in 2009; no progress had been reported in the investigation by year’s end. In May, for the first time, the police arrested and charged nearly 40 people for harboring escapees.
Discrimination against women is widespread. No laws prohibit spousal rape, 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 penalties.