U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Western Samoa

  Western Samoa is a small Pacific island country located 1,600 miles northeast of New Zealand with a population of approximately 160,000. It is a parlia- mentary democracy with certain concessions to Samoan cultural practices. The Constitution provides for a Samoan head of state, a unicameral legislature of matai (family heads) elected by universal suffrage, an independent judiciary, protection of Samoan land and traditional titles, and guarantees of fundamental rights and freedoms. Executive authority is vested in the Head of State, with the Government administered by the Cabinet, consisting of the Prime Minister and 12 ministers chosen by him. All laws passed by the Legislative Assembly need the approval of the Head of State. The present one, Malietoa Tanumafili II, holds the position for life. His successors will be elected by the Legislative Assembly for 5-year terms. The culture of Western Samoa is essentially Polynesian but uniquely Samoan. Traditional authority is vested in the matai who are appointed by a consensus of the aiga (extended family) or by decision of the fono (council of matai). Ownership of land is legally vested in the matai who has the responsibility to direct the economic, social, and political affairs of the aiga. Western Samoa has 362 villages with over 25,000 matai. Each village is governed by a fono, which can fine or otherwise punish offenses against village rules. Western Samoa does not have a defense force. The small national police force is firmly under the control of the Government but has little impact beyond the capital city. The economy is primarily agricultural and is susceptible to shifts in world prices for its export commodities, such as coconut products. In recent years, tourism and light industry have become increasingly important foreign exchange earners. Western Samoa is heavily dependent on foreign aid and on remittances sent to family members by more than 100,000 Samoans living abroad in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Western Samoan society is based on a collective value system in which obligations and responsibilities to the aiga are often given precedence over individual rights. Most disagreements are settled by decision of the fono. Judgments usually involve fines or, more rarely, banishment from the village. Principal human rights problems arise out of discrimination and violence against women. Societal pressures may interfere with the ability to conduct fair trials. A government-established public defender's office and an ombudsman's office help Samoans in their dealings with the courts and the Government.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Such killings are not known to occur.

b. Disappearance

There have been no reports of politically motivated disappearance.

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

Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited by law, and there have been no reports of such practices by police or other government authorities. However, villages are controlled by customary law, and the fonos may mete out banishment as punishment when deemed necessa- ry. This is one of the harshest forms of punishment in this collective society.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law contains safeguards against arbitrary arrest and preventive detention, and these are widely observed.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Western Samoan law assures the right to a fair public trial, which is honored by the official court system, modeled on the British system. However, many civil and criminal matters are not handled by Western-style courts but by village fonos, which differ considerably both in their decisionmaking style and in the number of matai involved in the decisions. The Village Fono Law of 1990 gives legal recognition to the decisions of the fono and provides for limited recourse of appeal to the Lands and Titles Courts and to the Supreme Court. No appeals have yet been made to the Supreme Court.

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

Samoan law provides for protection from invasion of the home or seizure of property without substantive and procedural safeguards, including search warrants, which are issued by the judicial branch. Practically, however, there is little or no privacy in the village. Village officials by law must have permission to enter homes, but there can be substantial social pressure to grant such permission.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of speech and of the press are fundamental parts of the Constitution. In 1993 the Government began printing a weekly paper of news and features which focuses largely on government activities. The Government also passed the Newspapers and Printers Act and the Defamation Act in 1993, which require journalists to reveal their sources in the event of a defamation suit against them. The two acts were strongly criticized by the local press. To date no court case has required that these acts be invoked. Two major newspapers, and many smaller ones, are printed regularly in the country. The Government operates a radio station and the country's sole television station, and there is also a private radio station. Television from neighboring American Samoa is readily available to viewers in Western Samoa.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly and the right to form associations. There are no significant restrictions.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion is provided for in the Constitution, along with freedom of thought and conscience. There is no government-favored religion. Nearly 100 percent of the population is Christian. While the Constitution grants each person the right to change religion or belief and to worship or teach religion alone or with others, in practice the matai often chooses the religious denomination of the aiga. There is strong societal pressure to support church leaders and projects financially. Such contributions often total more than 30 percent of personal income.

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

The Constitution provides for freedom of internal movement and resettlement in Western Samoa, but in practice some citizens have been banished either from village activities or completely from the village. Emigration is actively supported by the Government as a "safety valve" for pressures of a growing population, for potentially rebellious youths, and because it increases foreign income through remittances. Foreign travel is not arbitrarily restricted. The right of citizens to return to Western Samoa from abroad is guaranteed.

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

Samoan citizens have the right to change their government through direct, multiparty elections. All citizens above the age of 21 may vote. The right to run for 47 of the 49 seats in Legislative Assembly, however, remains the prerogative of the approximately 25,000 matai (virtually all of whom are men). The remaining two seats are reserved for citizens not of Samoan heritage. While all adult Samoans may vote for the Legislative Assembly, matai continue to control local government through the village fono, which is open to them alone. However, the system does permit change, and matai may be removed if they do not meet the responsibilities of their position. The political process in Western Samoa is more a function of personality than of party. The first party, founded in 1982, was the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP). Its leader, Tofilau Eti Alesana, is the Prime Minister. The HRPP holds the majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly. The opposition party, the Samoan National Development Party, was formed in 1988, replacing the previous Christian Democratic Party founded in 1985. Unless the Government falls, the next general elections will not be held until 1996.

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

While there are no official restrictions against their formation, no official or private human rights organizations exist. There are no reports of any international or nongovernmental requests for investigations of alleged violations of human rights.

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

Western Samoa is a homogeneous society with no significant ethnic minorities. Samoan politics and culture are the product of a heritage of chiefly privilege and power, and members of certain families have some advantages. While there is discrimination against non-matai and women, women (and particularly women matai) play an important role in society and may occasionally reach high office. One of the 12 cabinet members is a woman, and there is one other female Member of Parliament. The passage of universal suffrage in 1990 and the establishment of a Women's Affairs Ministry in 1991 provided substantial new rights and opportunities for women, but their traditional subordinate role is changing slowly in the more conservative parts of society.


Abuse of women and children is prohibited by law. There is no history or evidence of abuse of women within the workplace, of any activity such as trafficking in women, or of any organized prostitution or related forms of exploitation. Traditionally, social custom tolerates physical abuse of women within the home. Most often this is limited to wife-beating. The role and rights of the village fonos and tradition would prevent police from interfering in instances of domestic violence, barring a complaint from the victim. While village custom discourages a victim of such abuse from seeking redress from the Government, the offender may be punished by the village council, if the abuse is considered extreme. It is widely assumed that many cases of rape go unreported. However, when such cases are brought before the courts, they are treated seriously. Convicted offenders are often given relatively stiff sentences of several years' imprisonment.


Abuse of children is prohibited by law, and there is no pattern of child labor. Physical abuse of children is, however, traditionally tolerated within the home. The Government's commitment to the welfare of children is reflected not only in legislation but in its continued efforts to strengthen the educational system. Approximately 10 percent of the Government's budget is devoted to education. In addition to funding its own school system, the Government also provides financial support to a large number of church-related educational institutions in Western Samoa. The Government does not provide special assistance for intellectually or physically handicapped children. Schooling for such children is provided by private organizations.

National/Ethnic/Racial Minorities

The Constitution makes special provision to preserve the political rights of non-Samoans. Persons of mixed ancestry who are culturally Samoan are fully accepted and may attain positions of considerable wealth and influence. Several have held or hold cabinet positions and a number serve in the Parliament.

People with Disabilities

There is no legislation pertaining to the status of handicapped or disabled persons in Western Samoa. There are also no laws regarding accessibility for the disabled. Both custom and practice permit such persons to play a role in society commensurate with their abilities. Samoan tradition dictates that handicapped persons be cared for by their family, and this custom is widely observed in practice.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Western Samoan workers have legally unrestricted rights to establish and join organizations of their own choosing. To date, only one trade union has been organized in the small private sector, with members coming from the sole large factory in the country. A labor dispute and strike broke out in early 1993, when management in the same factory challenged the legality of an unrecog- nized, breakaway labor group. Government leaders publicly criticized the strike as counter to Samoan tradition. The dispute was settled with the assistance of the Labor Commissioner. The Public Service Association, representing government workers, an increasingly important sector of the work force, functions as a union. The Supreme Court has upheld the right of government workers to strike, subject to certain restrictions imposed principally for reasons of public safety. Workers in the private sector have the right to strike. The Public Service Association freely maintains relations with international bodies and participates in bilateral exchanges.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

While workers have the legal right to engage in collective bargaining, this right seldom has been practiced due to the fact that unions have only recently appeared in the private sector. However, the Public Service Association engages in collective bargaining on behalf of government workers, including bargaining on wages. Arbitration and mediation procedures are in place to resolve labor disputes, although these rarely arise. Labor law and practice in the one export processing zone are the same as in the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

While the Government does not demand compulsory labor and it is prohibited by law, in this collective society people are frequently called upon to work for their villages. Most people do so willingly, but, if not, the matai can compel them to do so.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Under the terms of the Labor and Employment Act of 1972 and Regulations of 1973, it is illegal to employ children under 15 years of age except in "safe and light work." The Commissioner of Labor refers complaints about illegal child labor to the Attorney General for enforcement. The Attorney General has received no complaints about violation of the child labor laws, which probably seldom occur. The law does not apply to service rendered to the matai, some of whom require children to work, primarily on village farms.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor and Employment Act of 1972 and Regulations of 1973 established for the private sector a 40-hour workweek and a small minimum wage. The hourly minimum wage is $0.40 (one Tala). This minimum wage suffices for a basic standard of living when supplemented by the subsistence farming and fishing in which most families engage. The law also establishes certain rudimentary safety and health standards, which the Attorney General is responsible for enforcing. Independent observers report, however, that the safety laws are not strictly enforced except when accidents highlight noncompliance. In addition, many agricultural workers, among others, are inadequately protected from pesticides and other dangers to health. Government education programs are addressing these concerns. The law does not apply to service rendered to the matai. Government employees are covered under different and more stringent regulations, which are adequately enforced by the Public Service Commission.

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