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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Tonga

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1997
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Tonga, 30 January 1997, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
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, January 30, 1997


The Kingdom of Tonga comprises 169 small islands scattered over a wide area of the South Pacific. Most of the approximately 105,000 inhabitants are Polynesian. Tonga is a constitutional monarchy in which political life is dominated by the King, the nobility, and a few prominent commoners. It is fully independent and a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The security apparatus is composed of the Tonga Defense Services (TDS) and a police force. The 350-man TDS force is responsible to and controlled by the Minister of Defense.

The economy is based primarily on the cultivation of tropical and semitropical crops. An increasing demand for imported manufactured goods and products unavailable locally has led to a substantial trade deficit. This has been offset largely by remittances from Tongans employed abroad, overseas aid, and to a lesser degree tourism. Remittances continued to diminish due in part to recessionary economic conditions in those overseas countries and in part to a weakening of emigrant ties to Tonga.

The principal human rights abuses remain severe restrictions on the right of citizens to change their government and discrimination against women. The Constitution, dating from 1875, has been increasingly challenged by commoners, whom it disadvantages.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution forbids torture and inhuman or degrading punishment or other such treatment, and there were no reports of such practices. Prison conditions are basic, especially as regards food and sanitation, but in accordance with local living standards. Church representatives and family members are permitted to visit prisoners. As there are no local human rights groups, the question of visits by human rights monitors has not arisen.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution proscribes arbitrary arrest or detention, and provides for the right to judicial determination of the legality of arrest; these are observed in practice. There is no preventive detention, although there are no statutory limits to the length of time a suspect may be held prior to being charged. The law does not limit access by counsel and family members to detained persons. There is no exile, internal or external.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary, whose top judges are expatriates, is independent of the King and the executive branch. The Court of Appeals, as the appellate court of last resort, is the highest court. The King's Privy Council presides over cases relating to disputes over titles of nobility and estate boundaries. The King has the right to commute a death sentence in cases of murder or treason. In addition, the court system consists of the Supreme Court (which has original jurisdiction over all major cases), the police magistrates' courts, a general court, a court martial for the TDS, a court tribunal for the police force, and a court of review for the Inland Revenue Department.

The law provides for the right to a fair public trial, and the Government honors it in practice. A court may not summon anyone without providing the person a written indictment stating the offenses it charges the person committed. Defendants are entitled to counsel, and lawyers have free access to defendants.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

By law and in practice, no one may enter or search the home of another or remove any item of property unless in possession of a warrant issued by a magistrate. Neither the State nor political organizations intrude arbitrarily into a person's private life.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press. Tonga has five newspapers (one of which is government owned) and one national magazine. The Government owns the only radio station. While there is generally little editorializing in the government-owned media, opposition opinion appears regularly alongside government statements and letters. A privately owned newspaper, Kele'a, openly criticizes the Government without government interference. A Catholic monthly, Taumu'a Lelei, also speaks out freely.

However, infringements of freedom of the press do occur. The Minister of Police has on occasion threatened action against the independent media. Specific infringements are usually tied to a particular event. An Australian journalist who had written critically (and, the Government alleged, not factually) about the Tongan royal family was barred from attending the July Pacific Island Media Association convention. In September two journalists, one a Tongan-American, were arrested and sentenced to 30 days in prison by the Parliament for publishing a notice of impeachment submitted to Parliament against the Justice Minister for having traveled to the Atlanta Olympics. The Member of Parliament who submitted the notice of impeachment also was jailed.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for peaceful assembly and association. There are no significant restrictions.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Citizens are free to travel anywhere within the Kingdom and abroad. The law places no restrictions on repatriation.

The Government cooperates with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. No person in recent memory has applied for refugee status, and the Government has not formulated a formal policy regarding refugees, asylees, or first asylum.

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

Citizens do not have the ability to change their leaders or the system of government. The King and a small group of hereditary nobles dominate political life. They assert authority largely through their control of substantial landholdings and their predominant role in the Legislative Assembly. The Constitution allows the monarch broad powers, many of which do not require the endorsement of the legislative branch. The King appoints and presides over the Privy Council, which makes major policy decisions. (When the King is not presiding, the Privy Council is called the Cabinet.) The King also selects the Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers, who hold office at his pleasure.

The unicameral legislature, the Legislative Assembly, consists of 12 Cabinet ministers, 9 nobles elected by their peers, and 9 people's representatives. All literate Tongans 21 years of age or older are eligible to vote. The King appoints the Speaker from among the representatives of the nobles. Government ministers generally vote with the nobles' representatives as a bloc. People's representatives sometimes vote against the Government.

Throughout the 1990's, people inside and outside the government establishment have called for democratic change. The Prodemocracy Movement, formally established in 1993, is dedicated to educating the people about their democratic rights. Following its election victory in February 1993, the movement turned to drafting proposals for revision of the 1875 Constitution, most notably proposals for popular election of all 30 members of the Assembly and election of the House Speaker from among Assembly members. As a result of January parliamentary elections, all of the nine people's representative seats are now held by legislators who advocate democratic reform.

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

While there are no known barriers to the formation of local nongovernmental organizations that concern themselves with human rights, no such organizations exist. No outside organizations are known to have made requests to investigate alleged human rights violations. Tonga is not a member of the United Nations.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

Social, cultural, and economic facilities are available to all citizens regardless of race or religion. However, members of the hereditary nobility have substantial advantages. These include control over most of the land and a generally privileged status. Nonetheless, it is possible for commoners to rise to cabinet positions in government and to accumulate great wealth and status in the private sector.


Domestic violence is infrequent. Incidents of wife beating that do occur are generally dealt with in traditional ways between the families and village elders; abused wives sometimes return to their families if mediation fails.

In this male-dominated society, women generally occupy a subordinate role. While the strong Polynesian cultural tradition has discouraged the rise of women to positions of leadership, a few have nonetheless become members of the legislature and have served in responsible positions in various occupations. However, these women needed connections with the nobility or extraordinary luck, and they face severe limits on their upward mobility in this tradition-bound society. Some village women are breaking the mold of passive, docile followers by leading village-based development projects. The Government has sought to direct the efforts of women's nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) by establishing a women's unit within the Prime Minister's office. However, women's groups view this as an attempt to co-opt them and their programs. They criticize the Government's emphasis on organization, process, and control, with few programs of substance. The NGO's and the women's unit disagree on the need for and potential composition of a government-sponsored National Council of Women.


The Government is committed to children's human rights and welfare and provides commensurate funding for children's welfare within the context of the total resources available to the State. Child abuse, if it occurs, is rare and has not become a source of societal concern.

People with Disabilities

No mandated provisions for accessibility for the disabled exist. There were no known complaints of discrimination in employment, education, or provision of other state services. Education of children with special needs has been a longstanding priority of the Queen.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have the right to form unions under the 1964 Trade Union Act, but to date no unions have been formed, presumably because of the small size of the wage economy and the lack of a perceived need for unions. The lack of unions makes the question of the ability of unions to affiliate with international bodies moot; however, such a right is neither protected, prohibited, nor limited by the Government.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Since no unions have been formed, collective bargaining is not practiced. There is no legislation permitting and protecting collective bargaining or the right to organize. Labor laws and regulations are enforced in all sectors of the economy, including in the two small export enhancement zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced labor, and it is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Child labor is not used in the wage economy, although there is no legislation prohibiting it. Education has been compulsory since 1882. Although it is sometimes criticized as being of poor quality, education is provided for all children through Form 6 (high school). Compliance rates are good.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no minimum wage law. Labor laws and regulations, enforced by the Ministry of Labor, Commerce, and Industry, limit the workweek to 40 hours. The Ministry of Labor enforces laws and regulations reasonably well in the wage sector of the economy, particularly on the main island of Tongatapu. Enforcement in agriculture and on the outer islands is limited by isolation.

Industrial accidents are rare, as few industries exist that would expose workers to significant danger. Due to these factors, there has been little or no work done on industrial safety standards.

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