People in Nauru generally enjoy political rights and civil liberties, though the government has taken steps to sideline its political opponents, and corruption is a serious problem. Asylum seekers and refugees housed in Nauru under an agreement with Australia live in dire conditions, and the country has attracted sustained international criticism over the persistent reports of abuses against them.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In October, the aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) left the country after being asked by Nauruan officials to stop providing care for asylum seekers and refugees. In the days afterward, MSF condemned conditions for asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru, and said officials had forced them out.
- Citing delays and the government’s failure to comply with a directive to pay the defendants’ legal fees, a Supreme Court justice in September granted a permanent stay on proceedings against the “Nauru 19,” who had been charged with a variety of crimes, including rioting, in connection with a 2015 antigovernment protest. In his ruling, Justice Geoffrey Muecke sharply questioned the motivations of the government, suggesting it sought the defendants’ conviction and imprisonment, and was “willing to expend whatever resources, including financial resources, as are required to achieve that aim.”
- The government banned the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from entering the country ahead of the September Pacific Islands Forum to be held in Nauru, describing the outlet as an “activist media organization.”
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 34 / 40 (−1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Nauru is a parliamentary republic, and the parliament chooses the president and vice president from among its members.
The 2016 parliamentary elections, which were considered generally free, led to the reelection of President Baron Waqa and his government. Waqa moved to consolidate his control after the election by appointing seven new assistant ministers, after obtaining legislative approval of the 2016 Assistant Ministers Bill.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The 19-member unicameral Parliament is popularly elected from eight constituencies for three-year terms. A Commonwealth election monitoring mission found the 2016 elections generally well conducted. The polls resulted in the reelection of all but one of the members of Parliament (MPs) who served in President Waqa’s government, and the defeat of four suspended opposition legislators, permitting the Waqa-led government to return with an increased majority. (The opposition MPs had been suspended without pay in 2014 for what was deemed unruly behavior, and for making remarks to foreign media that were critical of the government.)
The opposition voiced some complaints that they did not receive equal airtime prior to the elections.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
The electoral laws are generally fair and implemented impartially. The Nauru Electoral Commission is responsible for managing the entire election process. Voting is compulsory.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16 (−1)
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Although political parties are permitted, most candidates run as independents.
A contempt-of-court law enacted in May 2018 was criticized as being designed to intimidate opposition figures and others inclined to criticize the prosecution of the Nauru 19. The law makes criticism of witnesses, judicial officers, or legal representatives in a pending court matter illegal, as well as undermining judicial officials or the authority of courts. Violations of the law, which contains exemptions for government officials deemed to be acting in good faith or the interests of national security, are punishable by fines of up to $20,000 for individuals and $50,000 for corporations.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
Intense political rivalries created political instability prior to 2013. However, President Waqa’s government served a full term from 2013–16, and was reelected in 2016. Opposition members claimed some measures implemented by Waqa’s first administration, such as higher candidate fees and a requirement that public employees running for office must resign three months prior to an election, were made to discourage opposition candidates from running in the 2016 polls.
Five opposition MPs were suspended without pay in 2014 for what was deemed unruly behavior, and for making remarks to foreign media that were critical of the government. Four ran for reelection in the 2016 polls, though only one secured reelection. The fifth chose not to compete.
In September, Supreme Court justice Geoffrey Muecke, an Australian national, granted permanent stays on the proceedings against the Nauru 19 antigovernment protesters, agreeing with the defendants that the legal process had dragged on for too long and that the Nauru government had not complied with a court directive to meet some of their costs. The government plans to appeal Muecke’s decision. Three members of the Nauru 19 who had already pleaded guilty remained in jail.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
People’s political choices are generally free from domination by powerful interests that are not democratically accountable.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4 (−1)
The constitution provides for universal suffrage. However, widely held biases regarding the role of women in society have discouraged women’s participation in politics and elections; few women ran in the 2016 elections, and just one woman sits in Parliament.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the persistence of societal biases that discourage women’s participation in politics and elections.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 8 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
The freely elected Parliament, led by the prime minister, sets and makes policy. However, Australia has had considerable influence over politics because its Nauru-based processing center for asylum seekers is critical to the Nauruan economy.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Corruption remains a problem. Allegations of improper payments to senior government officials, including Waqa, by an Australian phosphate company emerged in 2016, and an investigation by Australian federal police remained ongoing in 2018. Legal proceedings related to the scandal also took place in Singapore in 2018, where a local company was fined for bribing a Nauruan MP.
In 2016, Australia’s Westpac Bank announced it would no longer handle accounts for the Nauruan government, with media reports suggesting that the decision came in response to concerns about suspected financial mismanagement by the government, including money laundering and tax evasion.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4
Nauru lacks a law on access to public information, but the Government Information Office releases some budget figures. Government officials are not required to disclose financial information.
In July 2017, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) upgraded Nauru’s tax transparency rating, giving it a “largely compliant” rating. Earlier, in May, the government completed an audit of the 2013–14 government accounts. The audit capped a 15-year audit gap that officials blamed on an absence of qualified staff.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 44 / 60 (−2)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 13 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed, but this right is not always respected in practice. Foreign journalists have a particularly difficult time operating in Nauru, as the government has implemented restrictions that appear to be aimed at deterring outside coverage of conditions for asylum seekers and refugees. Since 2014, foreign journalists have been subject to a visa application fee of roughly $6,000, up from approximately $150 previously.
There were reports of foreign journalists being denied visas to cover the 2016 elections. And after the 2016 polls, Justice Minister David Adeang attacked the foreign press, claiming that that the Australian and New Zealand media were misleading the public and not accurately reporting progress that Nauru has made towards strengthening democracy. Ahead of the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum, held in Nauru in September, the government banned the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from entering the country, describing it as an “activist media organization.”
Separately, the 2016 Crimes Act introduced criminal charges for defamation, now punishable with up to three years in prison.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, which the government generally respects in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is generally respected.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4
Asylum seekers are closely monitored.
Authorities are not known to illegally monitor private online communications. For three years, the government blocked Facebook, citing a need to protect users from obscene and pornographic content; the policy more likely represented another example of the government attempting to restrict coverage of the Australian processing center for asylum seekers. The ban was ultimately lifted in January 2018.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 9 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4
The constitution upholds the right to assemble peacefully, but this right has not always been respected in practice. Demonstrations related to the treatment of asylum seekers housed at the Australian processing center are often repressed. Legal proceedings against the Nauru 19 group of antigovernment protesters continued into 2018, and while they were eventually stayed in September, three defendants who had pleaded guilty were serving sentences at year’s end.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4
There are no legal restrictions on the formation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Nauru. There are several advocacy groups for women, as well as development-focused and religious organizations. However, authorities have interfered with the operations of activists seeking to improve the treatment of asylum seekers.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
There are no formal trade unions and only limited labor protection laws, partly because there is little large-scale private employment. The right to strike and collectively bargain are not protected by law.
F. RULE OF LAW: 10 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4
There have been concerns about undue influence on the judiciary by the government, which has been accused of dismissing judges for rulings officials found unfavorable. There have been concerns that government officials have pressured the judiciary in connection with the Nauru 19 case.
The Supreme Court is the highest authority on constitutional issues in Nauru. Appeals had previously been heard in the high court of Australia, but in March 2018, Nauruan Justice Minister Adeang announced that the country would sever links with Australia’s justice system, citing both onerous costs associated with case proceedings in another country, and the need for Nauru to establish greater independence. However, some skeptics suggested that the development was a means of denying the Nauru 19 an avenue to appeal their cases. Nauru later completed the signing of memoranda with neighboring Pacific countries, including Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, which will provide justices for Nauru’s new Court of Appeals. Appeals of Supreme Court Justice Muecke’s decision to stay the proceedings against the Nauru 19 were expected to be heard at the new court in 2019.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
The constitution provides for due process rights and those rights are generally respected. However, in 2017, the government passed a law that distinguishes between public servants who testify in favor of the government or against it. Analysts said it appeared that those who miss work to testify against the government would be placed on leave without pay, and that the law appeared to represent an attempt to discourage civil servants from testifying in favor of the Nauru 19.
Legal proceedings against the so-called Nauru 19 were permanently stayed in September by Justice Muecke, who agreed with the defendants that the legal process had dragged on for too long and that the Nauru government had not complied with a court directive to meet some of the defendants’ costs. He stated in his ruling that the “government of Nauru does not want these defendants to receive a fair trial” and that it sought to see them “convicted and imprisoned for a long time, and that the government of Nauru is willing to expend whatever resources, including financial resources, as are required to achieve that aim.” Three members of the group who had pleaded guilty were unsuccessful in their appeal to overturn their sentences, and were serving jail sentences at year’s end. The government has since withheld the passports of three of those among the Nauru 19.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Civilian authorities control the small police force. Nauru has no armed forces; Australia provides defense assistance under an informal agreement.
The Australian processing center for asylum seekers has received considerable international criticism for poor treatment of asylum seekers housed there. Few arrests have been made in connection with alleged abuses of its residents.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
The constitution provides for equal treatment regardless of race, country of origin, ethnicity, politics, or gender, but those rights are not always protected in practice. There are few legal protections against discrimination, which is notably a problem for women in the workplace. In 2016, the government decriminalized homosexuality, which had previously been punishable by up to 14 years of hard labor.
Reports of widespread abuse of refugees and asylum seekers forcibly transferred to Nauru under its agreement with Australia continued in 2018. Crimes committed against asylum seekers outside the processing center where most are housed frequently go uninvestigated. The asylum seekers suffer from grossly inadequate housing; denial of health care for life-threatening conditions; and a high rate of self-harm attempts among residents who wait, at times for years, for their asylum applications to be processed.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 12 / 16 (−2)
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4 (−1)
Most people in Nauru are free to move around the island. However, while asylum seekers were granted freedom of movement across the island in 2015, there are limits on their ability to leave, including in order to accompany family members who receive emergency medical care in Australia, and they face significant difficulties in obtaining employment and education. Many asylum seekers still live in tents and converted storage containers at the Australian processing center, where they remain under heavy surveillance. In October, the aid group MSF was asked by Nauru officials to stop providing care for asylum seekers, and the group subsequently left the country. In the days afterward, MSF condemned conditions for the asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru, and said the organization had been forced out.
The government has withheld the passports of some political opponents in recent years, including at least three people associated with the Nauru 19, among them two former opposition lawmakers.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the expulsion of aid workers serving asylum seekers, the withholding of passports from some opponents of the government, and limitations on the ability of asylum seekers and refugees to obtain employment or education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4 (−1)
The constitution protects the right to own property and people in Nauru are able to freely establish businesses. However, as of 2014, foreigners must pay approximately $4,500 a year for a business visa, up from $300.
In his ruling on the Nauru 19 case, Judge Muecke said that the government of Nauru maintained an unwritten “blacklist” under which the Nauru 19 were denied employment and the right to conduct business on the island.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to politically motivated restrictions on the business activities of government opponents.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Domestic violence, which mostly affects women, remains a serious problem, and children are also vulnerable to violence. However, authorities have taken some efforts to address these problems, notably by approving the new protections within the 2017 Domestic Violence and Family Protection Bill, and the 2016 Child Protection and Welfare Act. Marital rape was also made a criminal offense in 2016. Same-sex marriage is not recognized by law. Abortion is only allowed when the mother’s life is in danger, but not in cases of rape; the ban on abortion in cases of rape sparked controversy in 2016, with regard to the treatment of a pregnant asylum seeker who said she was raped at the Australian-run processing center.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
With the exception of asylum seekers, individuals generally enjoy equal economic opportunities. However, economic opportunities are limited to sectors such as phosphate mining and the public sector. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in 2018 that many family members of Nauruan politicians owned shares of the land where the Australian-run processing center is situated, and disproportionately benefit from their ability to collect high rents or secure high-paying jobs or other contracts at the center.
There are no health and safety laws to protect workers outside the public sector and issues have been raised in regards to dust exposure for phosphate miners. According to the US State Department, there have been no reports of human trafficking in Nauru in recent years.