Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Tonga’s political rights rating improved from 3 to 2 due to the orderly implementation of constitutional procedures in response to the prime minister’s incapacitation by illness, and the opposition’s increasing ability to hold politically dominant nobles accountable to the electorate.
Prime Minister Lord Tu‘ivakanō suffered a mild stroke in September while in New York for the UN General Assembly Plenary Session. King Tupou VI and the deputy prime minister were also overseas at the time, and lawmakers subsequently discovered that existing laws were not clear on who was to become acting prime minister in such a situation. Affairs in Tonga continued for several weeks without a resident head of state or head of government. On October 1, lawmakers named Lord Ma‘afu, the most senior cabinet minister, the “minister in charge,” which allowed him to represent the government in parliament but not to change policy. On October 15, Lord Tu‘ivakanō resumed the prime ministership.
In September, the defense services were renamed “His Majesty’s Armed Forces.” Opposition lawmakers complained that the change was inconsistent with recent democratic reforms.
Also in September, the parliament passed the Family Protection bill and the king issued final approval of the measure in November, with full implementation expected in 2014. The legislation was first introduced in 2011, and includes provisions to safeguard victims of domestic violence. A crisis center for victims opened in November.
Political Rights: 31 / 40 (+2) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 11 / 12
The unicameral Legislative Assembly has 26 members, including 17 popularly elected representatives and 9 nobles elected by their peers; all members serve four-year terms. The Legislative Assembly elects the prime minister. The king appoints the chief justice, judges of the court of appeal, and the attorney general on the advice of the Privy Council, whose members the king also selects.
In 2010, Tonga held parliamentary elections under a new system by which a majority of seats were filled through universal suffrage for the first time. Candidates from the prodemocracy Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands won 12 of the 17 popularly elected seats, and independents took 5 seats. That December, the new parliament chose Lord Tu‘ivakanō as prime minister.
In March 2012, King Tupou V died at the age of 63 while receiving medical treatment in Hong Kong. His brother, Prince Tupouto‘a Lavaka, assumed the throne, taking the title King Tupou VI. For two weeks in early October 2013, Lord Ma‘afu, the most senior cabinet minister, served as “minister in charge” to represent the government in parliament after the prime minister had a stroke. Lord Tu‘ivakanō returned to his post as prime minister on October 15.
Lord Tu‘iha‘ateiho resigned as acting speaker of the parliament in August 2013, to the dismay of many lawmakers. He said only that he felt “incompetent for the position.” However, the resignation came in the wake of a criminal charge against him for illegal possession of a firearm. Justice Minister Clive Edwards protested that the acting speaker was innocent until proved guilty and should remain in his post, which he did, after posting bail. In November, Lord Tu‘iha‘ateiho pleaded not guilty to the firearms possession charge. Proceedings were expected to continue in 2014.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 14 / 16
The monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent nonnobles dominate politics and the economy. While popularly elected representatives hold a greater number of seats in the parliament than nobles do, nobles nevertheless have great influence over Tongan politics, and frequently draw public ire with their actions.
There are no restrictions against forming political parties. Unlike Tonga’s 33 titleholders, who select their own representatives, commoners run for offie under the banner of political parties or as independents. Ethnic, gender, and other minorities do not have reserved seats in the parliament.
C. Functioning of Government: 6 / 12 (+2)
Lawmakers duly followed constitutional guidelines by electing Lord Ma‘afu as “minister-in-charge” to assume leadership after the prime minister became incapacitated due to illness in September. This allowed the affairs of government to continue to function smoothly until the return of Lord Tu‘ivakanō as prime minister.
Corruption is widespread, with royals, nobles, and their top associates allegedly using state assets for personal benefit. The Anti-Corruption Commission, established in 2007, lacks power and resources to operate. In January 2013, a parliamentary report alleged that former prime minister Lord Feleti Sevele had mishandled a Chinese loan.
The election of commoners to the parliament in 2010 marked a fundamental change for democracy in Tonga. However, solidarity among the nobles and their success in courting support from the five independent lawmakers allow considerable influence in selecting the prime minister, law making, and other affairs of state. In 2012, the government introduced a freedom of information policy to promote greater openness and accountability, but its potential impact on official abuse and corruption is still unproven.
Civil Liberties: 44 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 13 / 16
The constitution guarantees freedom of the press. Criticisms of the government appear regularly in all newspapers, including those wholly or partly owned by the state, but the government and individual leaders nevertheless have a history of suppressing the media. In June 2013, Kele‘a, a local newspaper, as well as its editor, its publisher, and the author of a letter to the editor the paper had printed, were collectively fined $138,000 in a civil defamation case brought by the prime minister and six cabinet ministers. The letter to the editor alleged that the courts allowed impunity for certain individuals, and criticized what it called improper government spending. Kele‘a has appealed the fine. In September, the publisher and the editor of Kele‘a were held in contempt of court in connection with their decision to print an editorial criticizing the earlier ruling against the newspaper, and were each ordered to pay a fine of $1,385 or serve one month in prison. Kele‘a issued an apology to the court for the editorial following the ruling.
A new high-speed internet cable network went into operation in August 2013. Despite high costs and poor infrastructure, internet use is growing rapidly.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the government requires all religious references on broadcast media to conform to mainstream Christian beliefs.
There are no government restrictions on academic freedom. To conduct research in Tonga, scholars must provide details of proposed research and receive a permit from the prime minister’s office. In 2012, Tongan was made the only language taught at early levels, with English added at higher grades. The rules exempt children whose native language is not Tongan.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 8 / 12
Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld. There has been a gradual decline in actions by the government and powerful elites to limit the creation or activities of nongovernmental organizations, including those that engage in work of a political nature. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated. A number of professional associations exist, including ones for teachers, nurses, seafarers, and public servants. They do not have official powers to bargain collectively.
F. Rule of Law: 11 / 16
The judiciary is generally independent, though a shortage of judges has created serious case backlogs. Traditional village elders frequently adjudicate local disputes. Nobles have increasingly faced scrutiny in society and the courts. Prisons are basic, and are only lightly guarded, as violent crimes are rare.
In February 2013, Tongan police commissioner Grant O’Fee announced that he had found that Tongan police officers had forged letters to immigration authorities in New Zealand that declared falsely that certain individuals who had been convicted of crimes had no police record, allowing those people to improperly secure New Zealand visas. Several senior police officers were implicated in the scheme, which Tongan authorities are investigating. An Australian investigation also found that a number of Tongans with criminal records had been improperly granted Australian visas, after their criminal records were effectively wiped through similar means.
Six people, five of whom were members of the Tongan police force, were implicated in the 2012 death of a New Zealand police officer who had died of head injuries while in the custody of Tongan police. Three of the police officers implicated were released from custody in April 2013, with authorities citing a lack of evidence against them. The other three suspects face manslaughter charges; the cases against them were ongoing at year’s end.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 12 / 16
The economy depends heavily on foreign aid and remittances from Tongans abroad. China’s outreach to islands in the Pacific has allowed Tonga access to millions of dollars in Chinese investment and aid, including a $60-million loan for which China has agreed to indefinitely defer payment. The gift of a Chinese-made MA60 aircraft sparked a row with New Zealand when Tonga added it to its commercial fleet. New Zealand—the source of a significant number of tourists to Tonga—alleged that the aircraft is unsafe; in July 2013 it advised against travel to Tonga and suspended $8 million in tourism aid to the kingdom.
Women enjoy equal access to education and hold several senior government jobs. However, no woman was elected in 2010. Domestic violence is common. Tonga has signed but not ratified the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Women cannot own land. A January 2013 UN report on human rights in Tonga found shortcomings in gender equality and women’s rights, and urged Tongan authorities to permit women to become landowners. The king gave his assent to the Family Protection Act on November 5, after the parliament approved it in September, and the new law will come into force in mid-2014. Under the new measure, police can grant on-the-spot protection orders for up to seven days, and counselors will be available to assist victims of domestic violence and the courts that hear their cases. In November, the Women and Children’s Crisis Center began providing access to free counseling, medical care, and the police in a single place. Colonial-era antisodomy laws remain on the books, but there is little evidence of government persecution or discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual preference. Conservative Christian values coexist with a traditional tolerance for more fluid notions of gender and sexuality.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year