Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Population: 100,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: 62
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: Micronesian, some Polynesian
Capital: Tarawa

Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 1
Status: Free


Like many other Pacific Island countries at low elevation, Kiribati is increasingly concerned about the impact of global climate change on surrounding sea levels. In February, unusually high tides forced some residents to leave their homes. In October, Kiribati agreed to accept up to 500 refugees while their applications to enter Australia were being processed, but later decided not to proceed with the arrangement.

The Republic of Kiribati consists of 33 inhabited islands of the Gilbert, Line, and Phoenix groups scattered over 1.4 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean, as well as Banaba Island in the west. The country, with a Micronesian majority and a Polynesian minority, achieved independence from Great Britain in 1979.

The first postindependence legislative elections were held in March 1982. In July 1991, President Ieremia Tabai, the republic's first president, served out his third and final term. Tetao Teannaki, who received Tabai's backing, defeated Roniti Teiwaki in the presidential race. In May 1994, however, Teannaki was forced to resign after his government lost a vote of no-confidence introduced by the parliamentary opposition, which accused his administration of financial irregularities. In accordance with the constitution, a three-member caretaker Council of State, consisting of the speaker of parliament, the chief justice, and the chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC), took over government authority until new elections were held. A brief constitutional crisis ensued after acting head of state Tekira Tameura was removed forcibly on the grounds that his tenure as chairman of the PSC had expired three days earlier. In September 1994, the parliament elected Teburoro Tito as president with 51 percent of the votes. Tito was elected to a second term in free and fair elections held in November 1998. In 1999, Kiribati became a full member of the United Nations.

A new, independent newspaper, The New Star, was launched in May 2000 by former President Ieremia Tabai and former government publications manager Ngauea Uatioa. In September 2000, the government barred a New Zealand-based reporter from entering Kiribati to cover the Pacific Islands Forum, the annual summit meeting for leaders in the region. The reporter attributes this ban to his writings condemning pollution in the country and a Chinese satellite-monitoring base in South Tarawa. The Kiribati government said the ban is for the journalist's personal safety as locals have been offended by his writing.

For many years, Kiribati has marketed its location along the equator for monitoring satellite launches and operations to foreign countries. In May 2000, an agreement was signed with Japan's National Space Development Agency to begin a multimillion-dollar spaceport project on Christmas Island. This agreement gives Japan seven-year lease-free access, allowing unmanned space shuttles, launched from Japan, to land on the island.

At the annual meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum held in August, Kiribati was a signatory to the PICTA and PACER agreements, two trade pacts that aim to encourage free trade and boost economic growth throughout the region.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Kiribati can change their government democratically. The 1979 constitution established a unicameral legislature, the Maneba ni Maungatabu, with 40 members directly elected for a four-year term, 1 appointed member, and 1 ex-officio member. The president, serving as both head of state and head of the government, is chosen in a nationwide ballot from among three or four candidates selected by parliament and is limited to three terms. Local island councils serve all inhabited islands. Several parties exist, but most lack true platforms and are organized around specific issues or in support of particular individuals. Subsequent to the 1994 constitutional crisis, a five-member committee was established to review the 1979 constitution.

The judiciary is independent and free of government interference. The judicial system is modeled on English common law and provides adequate due process rights. Litigants have the right of appeal to the Privy Council in London. Traditional customs permit corporal punishment, and island councils on some outer islands occasionally order such punishment for petty theft and other minor offenses. The police force of about 250 is under effective civilian control.

Freedom of speech and of the media is generally respected. The government-run radio station and newspaper offer diverse views, and Protestant and Catholic churches publish newsletters and other periodicals. The New Star, the independent newspaper launched by Ieremia Tabai and Ngauea Uatioa in May 2000, now competes against the government's Te Uekera. Tabai and Uatioa have also tried unsuccessfully to establish an independent FM radio station in Kiribati. In 1999, they were fined for importing broadcasting equipment for the proposed radio station without a proper license. The September 2000 bar on a foreign journalist remains in place.

While Christianity is the predominant religion, there is no state religion and freedom of worship is respected. The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and these rights are respected in practice. More than 90 percent of the workforce is involved in fishing and subsistence farming. The Kiribati Trade Union Congress represents the small wage sector and has approximately 2,500 members. The law provides for the right to strike. The last strike occurred in 1980.

Citizens are free to travel domestically and abroad. The law prohibits interference in personal or family matters, and the government respects these provisions in practice. Women enjoy full rights to own and inherit property. Although gender discrimination persists in many areas, employment opportunities for women in this traditionally male-dominated society are slowly improving. However, women are underrepresented in politics and government; according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women currently constitute just 4.8 percent of the legislature. In May 2000, trade unions launched a nationwide campaign to urge government private employers to support comprehensive standards of maternity protection for working women.

This 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.