Capital: Port Vila
Population: 250,000

Political Rights Score: 2 *
Civil Liberties Score: 2 *
Status: Free


In April 2010, New Zealand judge Nevin Dawson, who had led an investigation into the 2009 death of a detainee in police custody, fled Vanuatu after reportedly receiving death threats from the paramilitary Vanuatu Mobile Force. While Dawson later returned, the government remained silent about the report's findings and recommendations through year's end. Prime Minister Edward Natapei failed a vote of confidence in December and was replaced by Sato Kilman.

Vanuatu was governed as an Anglo-French "condominium" from 1906 until independence in 1980. The Anglo-French legacy continues to split society along linguistic lines in all spheres of life, including politics, religion, and economics.

Widespread corruption and persistent political fragmentation have caused governments to collapse or become dysfunctional. No-confidence votes have forced several changes of government in recent years, and parliamentary coalitions are frequently formed and dissolved.

In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the Vanua'aku Party (VP)won 11 seats, the National United Party (NUP) took 8, while the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) and the Vanuatu Republican Party (VRP) each captured 7. Parliament chose Edward Natapei of the VP as prime minister.

While some progress has been made in creating jobs and increasing per capita income, the unemployment rate remains high. Economic reform and advancing the rule of law have been difficult, as politics continue to be dominated by ethnic, tribal, personal rivalries. Moreover, progress has been slowed by a lack of transparency and accountability. A proposal put forth by legislators in November 2010 – which would sharply increase their monthly allowances and discretionary funds – was criticized as excessive given that the minimum wage remained unchanged.

Allegations of police abuse and intimidation continued in 2010, and the government's response remained weak. In March, Nevin Dawson – a New Zealander on a two-year appointment as a Vanuatu Supreme Court justice – released the findings of his investigation into the 2009 death of a detainee in police custody. Dawson found that the detainee had suffered nine broken bones and 23 other injuries during an "interrogation" by officers of the 300-member paramilitary Vanuatu Mobile Force (VMF). The report noted that other detainees captured by VMF around this time were also deliberately beaten and maimed by the VMF. Additionally, the investigation uncovered the use of intimidation by VMF officers, who displayed firearms during courtroom hearings. Following the release of his report, Dawson was forced to leave the country in early April after reportedly receiving death threats from senior VMF officers. He returned to his post later that month, though the government remained silent about the report's findings and recommendations through year's end.

Natapei was ousted in December after losing a vote of confidence, and Deputy Prime Minister Sato Kilman was chosen by Parliament as his successor. A total of $91,000 was allegedly paid to cabinet ministers and appointees who were laid off following the change of government.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Vanuatu is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for parliamentary elections every four years. The prime minister, who appoints his own cabinet, is chosen by the 52-seat unicameral Parliament from among its members. Members of Parliament and the heads of the six provincial governments form an electoral college to select the largely ceremonial president for a five-year term. The National Council of Chiefs works in parallel with the Parliament, exercising authority mainly over language and cultural matters. The 2008 elections were deemed largely credible by international observers despite reports of bribery and fraud.

Many political parties are active, but individual rivalries are intense and politicians frequently switch affiliations. Politics is also driven by linguistic and tribal identity. The leading parties are the VP, NUP, and the francophone UMP.

Corruption is a serious problem. National leaders have been forced from office in recent years amid corruption scandals. In June, Parliament decided to use $30 million from the national retirement fund to save Air Vanuatu, sparking serious public criticism. In October 2010, the government decided to stop issuing visas from its embassy in China following allegations that the visas were being sold for up to $5,000 each. Vanuatu was ranked 73 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government generally respects freedoms of speech and the press, although elected officials have been accused of threatening journalists for critical reporting. The state-owned Television Blong Vanuatu broadcasts in English and French. The state-owned Vanuatu Weekly and several privately owned daily and weekly papers supply international, national, and local news. In December 2010, journalists were reportedly prohibited from attending the session of Parliament during which Edward Natapei was ousted in a vote of no confidence, drawing criticism from the media industry. The government's monopoly of telecommunications services ended in 2008. As of August 2010, approximately 80 percent of residents reportedly had access to mobile telephones. The number of internet users is also growing, but access is limited by cost and lack of infrastructure.

The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country. Members of the clergy have held senior government positions, including the posts of president and prime minister. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom in 2010.

The law provides for freedoms of association and assembly, and the government typically upholds these rights. Public demonstrations are permitted by law and generally allowed in practice. A peaceful public rally held in March 2010 in the capital by supporters of a free West Papua (a province of Indonesia) took place without incident. Civil society groups are active on a variety of issues. Five independent trade unions are organized under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions. Workers can bargain collectively and strike.

The judiciary is largely independent, but it is weak and inefficient. Lack of resources hinders the hiring and retention of qualified judges and prosecutors. Long pretrial detentions are common, and prisons fail to meet minimum international standards. Tribal chiefs often adjudicate local disputes, but their punishments are sometimes deemed excessive. Harsh treatment of prisoners and police brutality allegedly provoke frequent prison riots and breakouts.

In an effort to curb the inflow of Chinese unskilled laborers – which has increasingly become a source of tension – the government said in December that it would not renew the work permits of Chinese workers already in Vanuatu.

Only two women sit in the 52-member Parliament, and discrimination against women is widespread. No law prohibits spousal rape, domestic abuse, or sexual harassment, which women's groups claim are common and increasing. Most cases go unreported due to victims' fear of reprisal or family pressure, and the police and courts rarely intervene or impose strong penalties. Women's rights advocates strongly criticized the court's decision in December 2010 to give only a suspended three-year sentence to a man who admitted to raping a 10-year-old girl.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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