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

  The Kingdom of Tonga comprises 169 islands scattered over an area of 360,000 square kilometers of the South Pacific. All but a handful 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. Formerly a British protected state, 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. Continuing world recessionary conditions in 1993 resulted in an abnormally low level of remittances. 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 who are disadvantaged by it, most dramatically by the November 1992 Prodemocracy Convention held in the capital and the results of the February elections.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

No such killings occurred.

b. Disappearance

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

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

Torture and inhuman or degrading punishment or other such treatment are forbidden by the Constitution, and there were no reported instances of such practices.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The right to judicial determination of the legality of arrest is enshrined in the Constitution and observed in practice. There is no exile, internal or external, and no preventive detention, although there are no statutory limits to the length of time a suspect may be held prior to being charged. There are no statutory limits to access by counsel and family members to such a detained person.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary is independent of the King and the executive branch. The Court of Appeal, as the appellate court of last resort, is the highest court. Two cases have involved Pro-Democracy leader Akilisi Pohiva who was charged with publishing secret government documents (a not guilty verdict was returned) and later charged with defamation, resulting in a guilty verdict and a fine of one Tongan dollar – less than a U.S. dollar. 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 right to a fair public trial is provided for by law and honored in practice. No one may be summoned before any court without first having received a written indictment clearly stating the offense with which that person is charged. 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 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. There is no arbitrary intrusion by the state or political organizations into a person's private life.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of speech and press is provided for in the Constitution. Tonga has five newspapers (one of which is government owned) and one national magazine. The only radio station is government owned. 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. The Catholic monthly, Taumu'a Lelei, also speaks out freely. The Minister of Police has threatened action against the independent media in one or two cases, but no action has ever been taken. Serious infringement has occurred, usually tied to a specific event such as the November 1992 Pro-Democracy Convention. No such actions were taken in 1993. The February 1993 election campaign took place with no restrictions on freedom of speech or press. All participants took full advantage of their rights and access to the media.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Peaceful assembly and association are provided for by law. There are no significant restrictions.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion is provided for in the Constitution and observed in practice. Missionaries may proselytize freely.

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

Tongan citizens are free to travel anywhere within the Kingdom and abroad. There are 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 Speaker is appointed by the King from among the representatives of the nobles. Government ministers generally vote with the nobles' repre- sentatives as a bloc. People's representatives sometimes vote against the Government. There are no political parties. Elections are held every 3 years, most recently in February 1993. As a result of those elections, the Pro-Democracy Movement extended its influence with the election of strong supporters to six of the nine people's representative seats. Since 1991 there have been continued calls for more democratic change both by people inside and outside of the government establishment. The Pro-Democracy Movement, which originated in 1986, was formally established in 1992 but does not consider itself to be a political party. This organization maintains that the monarchy is an inalienable part of the Tonga identity, but it believes that the Government must become much more relevant to today's world and that this can be achieved only through greater power sharing by the King and greater accountability on the part of the Government (one of its earliest efforts was to inspect the financial records of the legislature). The February 1993 elections were seen by many as a referendum for change, with those favoring reform the clear winners. Following its election victory, the Prodemocracy Movement has turned to educational efforts outside the capital and to drafting proposals for revisions to the 1875 Constitution, most notably for popular election of all 30 members of the Assembly and election of the House Speaker from among Assembly members.

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 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, some have become members of the legislature and served in responsible positions in various occupations. 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 erxist. There were no known complaints of discrimination in employment, education, or provision of other state services.

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 uniformly enforced in all sectors of the economy, including in the two small export enhancement zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced labor is prohibited by law and 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.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Tonga does not have a minimum wage law. However, the Ministry of Labor, Commerce, and Industry has for some years set minimum daily wages for such sectors of the economy as manufacturing and tourism. The minimum wage applies to so few people that it is not generally known. (Minimum wage figures are not readily available.) Existing minimum wages are not adequate to provide a worker and his family with a decent standard of living. Workers are protected to a degree, however, by the ease with which they can return to their villages and live without a cash income if wages offered are inadequate. The Tongan cultural tradition of extended family support provides an additional economic safety net. By regulation the workweek in Tonga is limited to 40 hours. Labor laws and regulations are enforced by the Ministry of Labor, Commerce, and Industry. Labor laws and regulations are enforced 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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