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2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Tuvalu

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as United States Department of State, 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Tuvalu, 11 March 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47d92c83c.html [accessed 31 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 11, 2008

Tuvalu is a parliamentary democracy with a population of approximately 11,000. In August 2006 citizens elected a 15-member unicameral parliament in generally free and fair elections. There were no formal political parties. Following the elections a loose coalition of eight members of parliament formed a new government and selected Apisai Ielemia as prime minister. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security force.

The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and judiciary generally provide effective means of addressing individual instances of abuse. However, there were a few areas of concern. Traditional customs and social patterns led to and perpetuated religious and social discrimination, including discrimination against women. The government passed legislation in December that reasserted government administrative control over the national broadcasting authority.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Local hereditary elders exercise discretionary traditional punishment and disciplinary authority. This includes the right to inflict corporal punishment for infringement of customary rules, which can be at odds with the national law. However, during the year there were no reports of such corporal punishment.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions generally met international standards, and the government permitted visits by local church representatives.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the national police service, and the government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year. Some women's rights advocates criticized police for failing to take domestic violence seriously.

Arrest and Detention

The law permits arrests without warrants if a police officer witnesses the commission of an unlawful act or has "reasonable suspicion" that an offense is about to be committed. Police estimated that the majority of arrests were of this type. The police may hold a person arrested without a warrant for no more than 24 hours without a hearing before a magistrate. When a court issues an arrest warrant, the maximum permissible detention time before a hearing must be held is stated on the warrant and normally is one to two weeks.

There was a functioning system of bail. Arrested persons generally were promptly informed of the charges against them, although bureaucratic delays sometimes occurred because persons charged with serious offenses to be tried in the High Court must wait for its semiannual meeting. Detainees had prompt access to family members. The people's lawyer (public defender) was only available after the position was filled in September after an 11-month vacancy. Prior to that, those needing legal assistance were directed to the Office of the Attorney General. The country had no attorneys in private practice.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence in practice.

There is a two-tier judicial system. Higher courts include the High Court, the Court of Appeal (which has never met), and the Sovereign in Council (Privy Council) in the United Kingdom. Lower courts consist of senior and resident magistrates, the island courts, and the land court. A nonresident expatriate chief justice appointed by the governor general presides over the High Court. Separate security, military or other parallel court systems do not exist in the country.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. However, the lack of a public defender precluded High Court sessions during most of the year.

Procedural safeguards are based on British common law. The law provides for a presumption of innocence. Judges conduct trials and render verdicts; there are no juries. Trials are public and defendants have the right to be present. Although defendants have the right to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, access to an independent public defender, and be informed of the nature of the offenses with which they are charged, these rights could not be consistently exercised in the absence of a public defender for the first nine months of the year. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses, present evidence, and appeal convictions. The High Court met once during the year, resulting in significant delays in trials. The courts continued to have a large backlog of cases waiting to be heard.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters. Individuals may bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.

2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, but the government occasionally limited these rights in practice.

Citizens were free to criticize the government publicly or privately without reprisal, and there were no reports that the government sought to impede such criticism.

There were no private, independent media. The Tuvalu Media Corporation (TMC), a public corporation, controlled the country's sole radio station. During the year there were claims that the government tried to influence TMC reporting. After disagreements over TMC's administration and editorial independence, the government decorporatized TMC in December, which made it a governmental department within the Prime Minister's Office, effective January 1, 2008.

TMC's monthly newsletter ceased publication during the year due to lack of funding. Local radio news, information, and music were broadcast seven hours per day. The remaining radio programming consisted of rebroadcasts of BBC programs. There was no television broadcast. Those few who can afford it received international satellite television broadcasts. DVDs and videotapes circulated freely and were widely available. Pornography is illegal. International media were allowed to operate freely.

Internet Freedom

There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet and no reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. However, the relative lack of telecommunications infrastructure, especially beyond the capital island of Funafuti, and relatively high costs restricted public access to and use of the Internet.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice; however, the High Court has held that traditional village authorities may restrict this right in certain circumstances.

The constitution also states that the laws are to be based on Christian principles. Despite official tolerance, religious homogeneity (more than 90 percent of citizens are members of the Church of Tuvalu, a Congregationalist denomination) and traditional structures of communal life posed practical barriers to the introduction and spread of other religious beliefs. The law requires churches to register, and they must have a minimum of 50 members to do so.

At year's end the Court of Appeal had not met to review the Brethren Church's appeal of the High Court's 2005 ruling permitting local traditional authorities to restrict the constitutional right to religious freedom in defense of traditional mores.

The High Court did not meet during the year to consider the 2006 decision by the council of elders on one island prohibiting the establishment or practice of "any new religion" not already established on the island and efforts to influence landowners to hinder the construction of a Brethren church. No new restrictions on the Brethren church were reported during the year.

Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There was a degree of societal intolerance toward religions other than established Christian denominations, particularly on the outer islands. There was no known Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2007 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.

The constitution prohibits forced exile, and the government did not practice it.

Protection of Refugees

The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, but the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government did not grant refugee status or asylum. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations, but the issue of assisting refugees and asylum seekers did not arise during the year.

During the year there were no applications for refugee resettlement, asylum, or protection from refoulement, the return of persons to a country where there is reason to believe they feared persecution.

3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The law provides citizens the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Citizens freely and directly elect a 15-member unicameral parliament with four-year terms. The country's eight main islands are each administered by a six-person council, also elected by universal suffrage to four-year terms. The minimum voting age is 18 years.

The August 2006 general elections were generally free and fair. An eight-member majority of the newly elected parliament selected Apisai Ielemia as prime minister.

There were no formal political parties; instead, parliament tended to divide between an ad hoc faction with at least the necessary eight votes to form a government and an informal opposition faction.

Participation by women in government and politics was limited, largely due to traditional perceptions of women's role in society. There were no female members of parliament or cabinet ministers. There were no members of minorities in the legislature or the cabinet.

Government Corruption and Transparency

The law provides criminal penalties for some forms of official corruption, such as theft; however laws against corruption are weak. There was widespread public perception that government transparency and accountability needed further improvement. During the year the government enacted a "leadership code" that outlines standards to which government officials are expected to adhere. Concerns remained that public funds sometimes were mismanaged and that government officials sometimes benefited unfairly from their positions, particularly in regard to overseas travel and related payments and benefits. During the year the government continued to ban most overseas travel by officials unless funded from abroad.

The law provides for annual, public ministerial reports, but publication was spotty and often nonexistent. The Auditor General's Office, responsible for providing government oversight, was underfunded and lacked serious parliamentary support. Consequently it had inadequate staff and resources. Public officials were not subject to financial disclosure laws.

There is no law providing for public access to government information. In practice the government was somewhat cooperative in responding to individual requests for such information.

4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There were no local NGOs focused entirely on human rights, although there were no known barriers to their establishment. Some human rights advocates, such as the Tuvalu National Council of Women, operated under the auspices of the Tuvalu Association of Nongovernmental Organizations, which was composed primarily of religious organizations. The people's lawyer monitored sentencing, equality before the law, and human rights issues in general. This institution, which at times was critical of the government, nonetheless was supported by the government, which frequently sought its advice. The few other local organizations involved in human rights issues generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. However, opportunities to publicize such information locally were severely limited due to the lack of local print and electronic media. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to local organizations' views.

5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and place of origin, and the government generally enforced these prohibitions. In 2005 the High Court stated that the omission of gender as a ground of discrimination in the constitution was deliberate, and there is no constitutional protection against gender discrimination. The Tuvalu National Council of Women urged the government to amend the law to specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, but no action was taken on this proposal during the year.

Women

Reports of violence against women were rare. However, women's rights observers reported that it was not possible to estimate accurately the incidence of rape and domestic violence, due to a lack of data. Law enforcement authorities reported a single arrest for rape; there were no trials for rape during the year. Rape is a crime punishable by a minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment, but spousal rape is not included in the legal definition of this offense.

The law does not specifically address domestic violence, and the issue was not a source of broad societal debate. Acts of domestic violence were prosecuted under the assault provisions of the penal code. The maximum penalty for common assault is six months' imprisonment, and for assault with actual bodily harm, it is five years. The police continued to practice an unofficial "no-drop" policy under which they do not drop charges in cases of domestic violence. Women's rights observers criticized the police for seeking to address violence against women using traditional and customary methods of reconciliation rather than criminal prosecution. There were no shelters or hot lines for abused women.

Prostitution and sex tourism are illegal and were not problems. The law does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment but prohibits indecent behavior, which includes lewd touching. Sexual harassment was not a significant problem.

There remained some areas in which the law contributes to an unequal status for women. For example, the land inheritance rights of the Tuvalu Lands Code are based in part on customary practices. If survivors cannot agree on the settlement of an estate, the law specifically provides for sons to inherit a greater share of property than daughters, although the law allows appeal of such property distributions. In addition the Native Lands Ordinance states that after the age of two any illegitimate child, if accepted by the father, shall reside with him or his relations.

In practice women held a subordinate societal position, constrained both by law in some areas and by traditional customary practices. Nonetheless, women increasingly held positions in the health and education sectors and were more active politically. In the wage economy, men held most higher-paying positions, while women held the clear majority of lower-paying clerical and retail positions.

Children

Government funding for children's welfare was reasonable within the context of its total available resources. Education was free, compulsory, and universal for children through age 13. Primary school enrollment rates were 87 percent for boys and 88 percent for girls, according to 2006 Asian Development Bank figures. However, only about one-third of secondary-school-age children (ages 15 to 19) attended school. The attendance rate for girls at the secondary school level was approximately 10 percent higher than that for boys and approximately 40 percent higher in the last two years of secondary school. Students competed for academic scholarships to attend universities overseas or participated in vocational training focusing on subsistence farming and maritime training for men, and computer or other business training for women. The government provided free medical care for children through age 18. Boys and girls had equal access to state-provided medical care.

The government did not compile child abuse statistics, and there were no reported cases of child abuse or child prostitution during the year. However, anecdotal evidence indicated that child abuse occurred. Corporal punishment, in the form of strokes of a cane or paddle, was common in schools.

Trafficking in Persons

The law does not prohibit all forms of trafficking in persons, but there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country. However, the law specifically prohibits procurement of persons within and across borders for purposes of prostitution.

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disability. There were no known reports of discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, or the provision of other state services, nor were there restrictions on the right of persons with disabilities to vote or participate in civic affairs. However, supplementary state services to address the special needs of persons with disabilities were very limited. There are no mandated accessibility provisions for persons with disabilities. There was no government agency with specific responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination

Societal discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation was not common and there were no reports of such discrimination. Persons with HIV/AIDS faced some societal discrimination. Local agents of foreign companies that hired seafarers from Tuvalu to work abroad barred persons with HIV/AIDS from employment. The government and NGOs cooperated to inform the public about HIV/AIDS and to counter discrimination.

6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law provides for the right of association. Workers were free to organize unions and choose their own labor representatives, but most of the population lacked permanent employment and was engaged in subsistence activity.

Public sector employees such as civil servants, teachers, and nurses were members of professional associations that did not have union status. The only registered trade union, the Tuvalu Seamen's Union, had approximately 1,200 members, some 400 of whom worked on foreign merchant vessels.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law provides for conciliation, arbitration, and settlement procedures in cases of labor disputes. Although there are provisions for collective bargaining, in practice the few individual private sector employers set their own wage scales. Both the private and public sectors generally used nonconfrontational deliberations to resolve labor disputes.

The law provides for the right to strike, but no strike has ever taken place.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children, and there were no reports that such practices occurred.

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits children under age 14 from working in the formal labor market. The law also prohibits children under age 15 from industrial employment or work on any ship and stipulates that children under age 18 are not allowed to enter into formal contracts, including work contracts. The government effectively enforced these prohibitions. Children rarely were employed outside the traditional economy of subsistence farming and fishing.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage, set by the government, was barely sufficient to allow a worker and family in the wage economy to maintain a decent standard of living. The biweekly minimum wage in the public sector was $114 (A$130). Private sector wages were typically somewhat lower than the government's minimum wage rate.

The Ministry of Labor may specify the days and hours of work for workers in various industries. The law sets the workday at eight hours. However, very few persons worked in the formal economy, which was primarily on the main island; thus, the government did not have the occasion to enforce the law.

The law provides for rudimentary health and safety standards. It requires employers to provide an adequate potable water supply, basic sanitary facilities, and medical care. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for the enforcement of these regulations, but in practice it provided minimum enforcement. Workers can remove themselves from work situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their jobs; the law also protects legal foreign workers.

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