U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Vanuatu

VANUATU   Vanuatu, a small South Pacific island nation which was jointly administered by Britain and France prior to its independence in 1980, has a parliamentary form of government with a 50-member Parliament, including a Prime Minister and a President. The latter's powers are largely ceremonial, except when acting on the advice of the Council of Ministers. Political legitimacy is based on majority rule. The civilian authorities control the small police and paramilitary mobile forces. Subsistence and small-scale agricultural production and fishing support more than 80 percent of the population. Copra, cocoa, and beef cattle are the main cash crops. The service sector--government, tourism, and an offshore financial center --provides most formal employment and represents the largest component of the country's gross domestic product. Government control over most media and occasionally strong pressures on the one independent newspaper, including the threat to revoke its business license, together with discrimination and violence against women, remain the major human rights problems.

Respect for Human Rights

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

Constitutional provisions against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are observed in practice and enforced by the courts. The law provides that prisoners shall have recourse to the Ombudsman, a constitutional position. Prison conditions meet minimum international standards, and the Government permits visits by human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

There were no reports of arbitrary arrests. Arrest is by warrant. The Constitutional provision that suspects must be informed of the charges and given a speedy hearing before a judge is observed in practice. There is no exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The courts are mainly free of military or executive interference. The courts uphold constitutional provisions for a fair public trial, presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, prohibition against double jeopardy, the right of judicial determination of the validity of arrest or detention, and appeal to the Supreme Court. There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

There were no reports of arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press; however, the Government occasionally pressured the media to limit the presentation of views contrary to the Government's position. Prior to late 1994, the Government controlled the nation's media which consisted of a weekly newspaper and two radio stations. An independent weekly newspaper began publishing in late 1994 and has since expanded to semiweekly editions. Opposition political parties occasionally publish short newsletters. Limited service television broadcasting with no local news features recently began in the capital, Port Vila; the station is partially owned by the Government. In early 1995, the Government ordered the radio not to air an interview with a leader of an opposition political party, according to international media reports. In June the Government banned the media it controlled from reporting the critical comments of an Australian judge who resigned unexpectedly from the Vanuatu judiciary. The judge publicly questioned the independence of the Chief Justice. The Government also attempted to ban reporting on the hostile reaction within the region to France's decision to resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Freedom of the independent press remains tenuous. The President, in opening the Parliament in March, urged the Government to prohibit newspapers from false reporting and invasions of privacy. In a prepared statement delivered shortly thereafter in Parliament, a senior government minister threatened to revoke the business license of the independent newspaper, claiming that it reported an inaccurate and negative picture of the Government as it approached general elections at the end of the year. The newspaper denied that it had reported inaccurately. Following pressure from the Government, the newspaper began printing articles in French, even though it was uneconomical to do so and the newspaper catered to a predominantly English-speaking audience. A senior government official also threatened not to renew the expatriate publisher's residency permit. Although none of the threats were carried out, their persistence may induce a degree of self-censorship on the part of the otherwise independent newspaper. Media reports directed to external audiences do not incur the same government response. PACNEWS, a Pacific regional news agency which moved its headquarters to Vanuatu in 1994, continued to transmit stories throughout the region even when they included criticism of the country's leaders. Correspondents for international media are also allowed to report from Vanuatu without interference.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Permits must be obtained to hold public demonstrations and rallies. Although not allowed such a permit for Bastille Day, when the French Embassy had planned celebratory activities, nongovernmental organizations (NGO'S) in Port Vila a month later were permitted to march and demonstrate against the resumption of French nuclear testing. The Government does not restrict the forming of political parties and other groups.

c. Freedom of Religion

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected it in practice. Missionaries of various Christian denominations work without restriction. In June Parliament passed the Religious Bodies Act over opposition objections that it was unconstitutional. The Act would have given the Government the right to register and control the activities of religious organizations. The President refused to sign the Act into law.

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

All citizens are free to travel internally and externally and to return from abroad without restrictions. There are no refugees in Vanuatu, and there is no clearly defined policy on asylum. However, the Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A UNHCR representative visited Vanuatu twice in 1995 to discuss the possibility of Vanuatu's accession to the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

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

Citizens have the right peacefully to change their government. The Constitution provides for parliamentary elections every 4 years. After the general elections on November 30, a new coalition government was installed in December, with Serge Vohor, leader of the Francophone Union of Moderate Parties, as Prime Minister, and Fr. Walter Lini of the Anglophone National United Party as Deputy Prime Minister. The predominantly Anglophone Unity Front, which won the most seats in the November election, was unable to put together a coalition and now forms the opposition. Former prime minister Maxime Carlot Korman was elected Speaker of the Parliament. Outside observers generally consider the 1995 campaign and voting to be fair, although the Government's influence on the media prevented opposition parties from fully publicizing their views. The Government has also been accused of politically biased employment practices, especially since the firing of a significant number of public servants following the 1994 general strike (See Section 6.a.). Traditional attitudes, in which males are dominant and females are frequently limited to customary family roles, hamper women from taking a more active role in economic and political life. One member of Parliament is a woman; however, as is the mayor of the second largest town.

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

There are no restrictions on the formation of local human rights organizations. Vanuatu's first such, the Human Rights Forum, was founded in 1994.

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

The 1980 Constitution provides fundamental rights and freedoms to "all persons...without discrimination on the grounds of race, place of origin, religious or traditional beliefs, political opinions, language, or sex." Despite constitutional and legal protections, women remain the victims of discrimination in this traditionally based society. Due to high rates of unemployment, there are few jobs available to the disabled.


Violence against women, particularly wife beating, is believed to be common, although no accurate statistics exist. Courts occasionally prosecute offenders using common law assault as a basis for prosecution since there are no specific laws against wife beating. A senior police official was fined by the courts and threatened with imprisonment if he again physically abused his wife within the next 16 months. However, most cases of violence against women, including rape, go unreported because women, particularly in rural areas, are reluctant to report them for fear of further abuse. In addition, police are frequently reluctant to intervene in what are considered to be domestic matters. While women in theory have equal rights under the law, they are only slowly emerging from a traditional culture characterized by male dominance, a general reluctance to educate women, and a widespread belief that women should devote themselves primarily to childbearing. The then-Deputy Prime Minister, Sethy Regenvanu, at the U.N. Conference for Women in Beijing, where he headed Vanuatu's delegation, stated that it would take time to implement the laws which the Government had passed giving equal rights to women. He also announced Vanuatu's ratification of the International Agreement on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The majority of women enter into marriage through "bride-price payment," a practice which encourages men to view women as property. Women are also inhibited by tradition from owning land, and at least one women's advocate believes this limitation serves to underpin their secondary status. Members of the National Council of Women (NCW) also view village chiefs as a primary obstacle to the attainment of social, political and economic rights of women. To increase women's awareness of their political rights as general elections approached, the NCW organized a 2-week seminar on "women in politics" and encouraged women to become candidates.


Although the Government has made education a priority, access to education is limited and school attendance is not compulsory. Children are protected within the traditional extended-family system. Members of the extended family, particularly paternal uncles, play an active role in a child's development. As a result, virtually no children are homeless or abandoned. There is no pattern of societal abuse, although cases of child abuse are occasionally reported.

People with Disabilities

There is no known governmental or national policy on the disabled and no legislation mandating access for them. Their protection and care is left to the traditional extended family and to voluntary NGO's.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Most of the population is made up of Melanesians. Small minorities of Chinese, Fijians, Vietnamese, Tongans, and Europeans are generally concentrated in two towns and on a few plantations; they experience some discrimination with regard to land ownership. There is no evidence to suggest a pattern of ethnic discrimination in the provision of the limited basic services which the Government provides.

Section 6 Worker Rights.

a. The Right of Association

The law provides workers with the right to organize unions. Unions may not affiliate with international labor federations without government permission. Approximately 29,000 persons participate in the formal economy as wage earners. There are five trade unions. The unions are grouped under an umbrella organization, the Vanuatu National Council of Trade Unions, a member of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The trade unions are independent of the Government and ran a number of candidates under the Labor Party banner in the November 1995 general election. The high percentage of the population still engaged in subsistence agriculture and fishing deters extensive union activity. In addition, membership in the Vanuatu Public Servants Union fell dramatically following the Government's wholesale dismissal of hundreds of full-time public servants during a protracted general strike in 1994. The Supreme Court in February 1994 ruled that the union had not complied with its own rules when it undertook the general strike and it declared the strike illegal. Combined union membership in the private and public sectors reportedly has fallen from more than 4,000 to less than 1,000 in the aftermath of the 1994 strike. The law prohibits retribution if the strike is legal. In the case of private-sector employees, violations would be referred to the Labor Department for conciliation and arbitration. In the public sector, violations would be handled by the Public Service Commission. In August Parliament passed a law requiring unions to give 30-days' notice of intent to strike, with a list of the names of intending strikers. There was no strike activity in 1995.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Unions exercise the right to organize and bargain collectively. Labor unions negotiate wages and conditions directly with management. If the two sides cannot agree, the matter is referred to a three-member arbitration board appointed by the Minister of Home Affairs. The board consists of one representative from organized labor, one from management, and the senior magistrate of the magistrate's court. While a dispute is before the board, labor may not strike and management may not dismiss union employees. Unions and management, however, generally reach agreement on wages without having to refer the matter to arbitration. Complaints of antiunion discrimination are referred to the Commissioner of Labor. While the law does not require union recognition, once a union is recognized, it does prohibit antiunion discrimination. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there were no reports that either is practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law prohibits children under 12 years of age from working outside of family-owned agricultural production, where many children assist their parents. Employment of children from 12 to 18 years of age is restricted by occupational category and conditions of labor, for example, restrictions on employment in the shipping industry and on night-time employment. The Labor Department effectively enforces these laws.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Vanuatu has a legislated minimum wage, effectively enforced by the Labor Department. In February it was raised to a flat rate of approximately $143 (16,000 Vatu) per month for both urban and rural workers. The previous minimum wage was approximately $93 for rural workers and $107 (13,200 Vatu) for urban workers. The minimum wage would not support an urban family living entirely on the cash economy. Most families are not dependent solely on wages for their livelihoods. Various laws regulate the rights to sick leave, annual vacations, and other conditions of employment, including a 44-hour maximum workweek, with at least one 24-hour rest period weekly. Vanuatu's Employment Act, enforced by the Labor Department, includes provisions for safety standards. However, the 1987 safety and health legislation is inadequate to protect workers engaged in logging, agriculture, construction, and manufacturing, and the single inspector attached to the Labor Department is hard pressed to enforce the Act fully. Workers do have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to their continued employment.

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