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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Tonga

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Tonga, 30 January 1995, 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.


The Kingdom of Tonga comprises 169 small islands scattered over a wide area of the South Pacific. Most of the approximately 104,000 inhabitants are Polynesian. Tonga is a constitutional monarchy in which political life is dominated by the King, the nobility, and a few prominent commoners. Tonga 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.

Tonga's 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 largely been offset by remittances from Tongans employed abroad, overseas aid, and, to a lesser degree, tourism. Remittances from Tongans overseas continued to diminish, due in part to recessionary economic conditions 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.


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 disappearances and no evidence of people being abducted, secretly arrested, or clandestinely detained.

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.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution provides for the right to judicial determination of the legality of arrest, and this is observed in practice. There is no exile, internal or external. 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.

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, Tonga's court system consists of the Supreme Court (which has original jurisdiction over all major cases), the police magistrate's courts, a general court, a court martial for the Tongan Defense Services, 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 are no 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 press. Tonga has five newspapers (one of which is government owned) and two national magazines. 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. The Minister of Police has on occasion threatened action against the independent media, but no action has ever been taken. Specific infringements are usually tied to a particular event, such as the November 1992 Prodemocracy Convention, when live reporting was banned and media attendance inhibited. There were no reports of any restrictions in 1994. However, the King signed legislation on January 3 which greatly increased the penalties available through the Defamation Act. Prodemocracy leader 'Aklisi Pohiva has been a frequent target of defamation lawsuits for reports in his independent publication. He also has initiated his own lawsuits against others. Court decisions in these cases have gone both for and against Pohiva, based on the merits of the case.

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 it is observed in practice. Missionaries may proselytize freely.

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. There are no displaced persons in Tonga.

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 in Tonga. They assert authority largely through their control of substantial land holdings 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.

Tonga's 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. Elections are held every 3 years, most recently in February 1993. As a result of those elections, the Prodemocracy Movement extended its influence with the election of strong supporters to six of the nine people's representative seats.

Throughout the 1990's people inside and outside the government establishment have called for democratic change. The Prodemocracy Movement, formally established in 1992, is dedicated to educating the people about their democratic rights. Following its election victory in February 1992, 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.

In August the Prodemocracy Movement made history when its leaders founded Tonga's first political party "The People's Party." The party continues the goals of the Prodemocracy Movement, maintaining that the Monarchy is an inalienable part of the national identity, but arguing that the Government must become more relevant to today's world. It seeks greater power sharing by the King and greater accountability on the part of the Government. Official reaction to the party has been one of disdain, with no effort to repress it or interfere in its functioning.

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 in Tonga. No outside organizations are known to have made requests to investigate 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 in Tongan society. 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.


In Tonga's 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 nongovernmental women's 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 coopt 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 potental composition of a government-sponsored national council of women.

Domestic violence is infrequent. As a result, the country does not have a women's crisis center. 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.


Child abuse, if it occurs, is rare and has not become a source of societal concern. 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.

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 Tonga's 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.

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 in Tonga 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

Tonga does not have a minimum wage law. Labor laws and regulations, enforced by the Ministry of Labor, Commerce, and Industry, limit the workweek to 40 hours. The Ministry 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 in Tonga on industrial safety standards.

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