2001 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 2


Unrest in the Solomon Islands and Fiji in the past 18 months has affected many economies in the Pacific Islands, which depend on air and shipping ports in these two countries for the international movement of goods and people. Many island leaders recognize that their own countries hold potential for conflicts rooted in ethnic rivalries, gaps in development and distribution of government services, and problems in governance. On October 30, Samoa hosted a meeting of the South Pacific Forum, a 16-member regional group, to find ways to address these issues. This was an important step forward, even if the Solomon Islands chose not to attend, since Pacific Island countries have generally been reluctant to openly discuss internal affairs.

The country consists of two volcanic islands and several minor islets located west of American Samoa in the south central Pacific. In 1899, the United States annexed Eastern (American) Samoa, while the Western Samoan islands became a German protectorate. New Zealand occupied Western Samoa during World War II and acquired subsequent control of the territory under first a League of Nations and later a United Nations mandate. A new constitution was adopted in 1960, and on January 1, 1962, Western Samoa became the first Pacific Island state to gain independence.

The ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has won a plurality in all five elections since 1982. At the first direct elections in 1991, Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana won a third term after the HRPP secured 30 of the 47 parliamentary seats. In May 1996, the parliament reelected Tofilau for his fourth term. Under Tofilau's leadership, Samoa experienced an extended period of economic growth, and he expanded democracy by extending voting rights from only the matai (chiefs) to other citizens. However, corruption was widespread. In 1994, the country's chief auditor found half of the cabinet guilty of corrupt practices, but Tofilau only issued a public rebuke. Tofilau, ill with cancer, resigned in November 1998 after 16 years as prime minister. He was replaced by Tuilaepa, who had served as deputy prime minister and finance minister. In July 1998, Samoa formally changed its name from Western Samoa.

In July 1999, Luagalau Levaula Kamu, the public works minister, was assassinated at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the ruling party in the capital, Apia. This was the first political killing in Samoa since the islands gained independence from New Zealand in 1962. The murder was allegedly linked to Levaula's determination to stamp out corruption under the new administration of Prime Minister Tuilaepa. The prime minister stressed that the anticorruption drive would continue. Eletise Leafa Vitale, son of the minister for women's affairs, pleaded guilty to the killing and was given the death sentence. Toi Aukuso, former minister of communications, and women's affairs minister Leafa Vitale were also charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Although Samoa has retained the death penalty, it has never been carried out in this predominantly Christian country, and the Levaula family spoke out against the execution of Eletise. All this has sparked a debate on maintaining the death penalty. In an effort to curb violence, the government announced a gun amnesty in August 1999 to allow owners of illegal firearms one month to surrender them.

The government of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi continued in 2000 to combat corruption and had to answer to allegations of money laundering activities in the islands. Public debate over the death sentence for the killer of the public works minister led Susuga Malietoa Tanumafili II, the head of state, to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. In October, the police allegedly forced 2,000 Christians out of their village. Police said they acted on court orders to evict the religious group.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Samoans can change their government democratically. The 1960 constitution combines parliamentary democracy with traditional authority. However, until 1991, only the 25,000 matai, or chiefs of extended families, could sit in the unicameral parliament, Fono Aoao Faitulafono, and only two seats were reserved for citizens of non-Samoan descent. In a 1990 referendum, voters narrowly approved universal suffrage for parliament and increased the term from three to five years. The head of state is traditionally drawn from the four paramount chiefs and has the duty to appoint the prime minister and approve legislation. Susuga MalietoaTanumafili II is the head of state for life, but his successors will be elected by parliament for five-year terms. In rural areas, the government has limited influence, and the 360 village councils, or fonos, are the main authority. Several formal political parties exist, but the political process is defined more by individual personalities than strict party affiliation.

The state-owned broadcast media consist of the country's only television station and two radio stations. Both are heavily government-controlled and restrict air time for opposition leaders. For example, National Development Party leader Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi has been under a 15-year ban from appearing in government-owned media. In practice, however, the ban is not enforced. The government of Prime Minister Tofilau had also, on occasion, suppressed press freedom in the private media, which consist of two private radio stations, a satellite television company, several Samoan-language newspapers, and two English-language newspapers. In April 1998, Samoan journalists were ordered not to report on the proceedings of a Commission of Inquiry into the disappearance of a police file indicating that Tofilau was convicted in 1996 and fined on two counts of theft. A month later, high-ranking government officials received public funds to finance defamation suits. In this connection, The Samoa Observer, an independent newspaper, faced several lawsuits brought by government officials and business leaders over stories it published about public corruption and abuses of power. The government also withdrew all advertisements from the paper and Tofilau threatened to cancel the paper's business license. The paper's printing plant was even burned down under suspicious circumstances and its editor assaulted by relatives of a government minister.

The matai often choose the religious denomination of their extended family in this predominantly Christian country, and there is strong societal pressure to support church leaders and projects financially. The government generally respects the right of assembly. There are two independent trade unions, plus the Public Service Association, which represents government workers. Strikes are legal, but infrequent. Collective bargaining is practiced mainly in the public sector.

The judiciary is independent, and defendants receive fair trials. However, many civil and criminal matters are handled by village fonos according to traditional law. The 1990 Village Fono Law provides some right of appeal in such cases to the Lands and Titles Courts and to the supreme court. Village fonos occasionally order houses burned, persons banned from villages, and other harsh punishments. In October 1998, five men reportedly were hog-tied, their homes were destroyed, and they were banished from the village for conducting a non-Methodist service in their village. The police force is under civilian control, but its impact is limited mostly to the capital city, while fonos generally enforce security measures in the rest of the country.

Domestic violence is a serious problem. Traditional norms discourage women from going to the police or the courts for protection, and pro-active government measures are insufficient. Women are discriminated against in employment and underrepresented in politics. The church is a powerful force in Samoan society. Some clerics have become more willing to speak out in the fight against AIDS, such as supporting the use of condoms. Although the numbers of HIV infections and AIDS cases are still low, AIDS and HIV are increasingly recognized by Samoans as a public health threat.

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